Tycoon’s Next Big Bet for Space: A Countdown Six Miles Up in the Air



Paul G. Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, said Tuesday that he was entering the rocket business with a concept seldom used until now: a plane that can take off the conventional way and then, at 30,000 feet, launch a rocket to orbit, carrying with it satellites, supplies and — eventually — people. The first rocket launching could be as soon as 2016.

“You have a certain number of dreams in your life that you want to fulfill,” said Mr. Allen, an avid philanthropist who has also financed efforts like a radio telescope listening for alien transmissions, “and this is a dream that I’m very excited about.”

The airplane that his new company, Stratolaunch Systems, plans to build will be larger and heavier than the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’s record-setting flying boat that flew, just once, in 1947. With wings that will stretch 385 feet — longer than a football field — it will dwarf the double-decker Airbus A380, which is the biggest commercial passenger plane flown today. It will take off from a runway, fly to a normal cruising altitude and then drop off a rocket, eliminating the need for costly launching pads.

“With government-funded spaceflight diminishing, there is a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts,” Mr. Allen said. He noted that NASA had ended its space shuttle program this year, scrapped plans to return to the Moon and begun relying solely on Russia for launching astronauts to the International Space Station. He said his new effort would help keep “keep America at the forefront of space exploration.”

Mr. Allen thus joins the ranks of tycoons who are placing big bets on the heavens. The most prominent is Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic subsidiary is planning to fly tourists on short jaunts to the edge of space. Other big names are Elon Musk, who used his fortune as a founder of Paypal to establish SpaceX, a rocket maker that is racking up contracts with NASA, and Jeffrey P. Bezos, the Amazon.com founder, who has a space company called Blue Origin.

Mr. Allen was actually at the forefront of the billionaire space enthusiasts. A decade ago, he and Burt Rutan, a legendary aerospace engineer who, among many triumphs, built the first airplane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling, teamed up to create SpaceShipOne, the first private manned rocket to reach space, in 2004. That won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which had been offered as an incentive to push innovative space technology.

But afterward, Mr. Allen receded from the space limelight as Mr. Rutan worked on a larger version of SpaceShipOne for Mr. Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which will launch out of a newly built spaceport in New Mexico, maybe by late next year.

“Volume space tourism, I’d leave it to someone like Richard who knew how to pull that off,” Mr. Allen said. “To me, the exciting thing would be go all the way to orbit.”

His new project draws in a mixture of space industry people, old and new. Mr. Musk’s company — the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX — will build the rockets that Stratolaunch plans to launch. Michael D. Griffin, a former NASA administrator who has been supportive but skeptical of the emerging commercial space industry, will be on Stratolaunch’s board of directors. Stratolaunch will have headquarters in Huntsville, Ala., which is known as “the Rocket City” because of its role in the history of spaceflight, and an aircraft hangar in Mojave, Calif.

Mr. Allen is the sole investor, putting only his own money at risk. He declined to say how much he planned to spend. “Obviously, this is not inexpensive,” he said.

His new company aims to use the same strategy that won the X Prize, and supersize it. For the X Prize, he and Mr. Rutan took a rocket called SpaceShipOne, slung beneath a carrier airplane, and lofted it high into the sky before launching it, with a pilot on board.

This time around, the carrier airplane will have six 747 engines and a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds. It will use a 12,000-foot runway. By getting rid of the specialized launching pads used by NASA and other space agencies, Stratolaunch officials say they will be able to reduce costs, offer more flexibility and avoid bad weather by simply flying their airborne launcher to a patch of clear sky.

The company that Mr. Rutan founded, Scaled Composites, will build the airplane. Mr. Rutan, who retired this year, did the preliminary designs and will act as an adviser, but current Scaled employees will perform most of the work.

Mr. Rutan said that Scaled Composites, which is tiny compared with companies like Boeing and Airbus, will able to build such a huge airplane because it is designing and building only the airframe. Other components like the engines, electronics and landing gear will be scavenged from second-hand 747s. “The things that are most difficult, we’re not developing,” he said. “We’re just bolting them in as things that have millions of hours of airline service.”

Instead of a tiny space plane like SpaceShipOne, Stratolaunch’s carrier airplane will cradle a full-size rocket, a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, weighing about half a million pounds. The plane will take the rocket to 30,000 feet, almost six miles high, and then drop it. The rocket’s engines will then ignite and the tail fins will turn the rocket’s direction upward. The airplane will return to the airport and, in a quick turnaround, could be ready to launch another rocket by the next day.

The payload capacity will be about 13,500 pounds to low-Earth orbit — less than the Falcon 9 and other larger rockets like the Atlas V and Delta IV.

At first, Stratolaunch will aim to carry smaller satellites like NASA science probes. “This is obviously a big initial investment,” Mr. Allen said, “that we wouldn’t be making if we didn’t think they were going to be a lot customers out there, both for cargo and manned missions in the future.”

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