SEATTLE--Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan have teamed up on a new winged rocket that would be carried aloft by a gargantuan twin-fuselage mothership and then dropped from 30,000 feet for the climb to orbit, they announced today. The new rocket will be funded by Allen through a new company known as Stratolaunch Systems and built by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif.
The 1.2-million-pound six-engine carrier aircraft, with a wingspan of 385 feet, will be built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., a company founded by Rutan and now owned by Northrop Grumman. Dynetics of Huntsville, Ala., will provide program management and engineering support, along with the hardware used to attach the rocket to the carrier plane. Allen, who funded Rutan's development of a small piloted spaceplane built by Scaled that won a $10 million prize in 2004 for becoming the first private-sector manned craft to reach space, said his goal is to lower the cost of launching payloads -- and eventually people -- into low-Earth orbit. "Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding," he said during a news conference here. "This year saw the end of NASA's space shuttle program. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.
With government-funded spaceflight diminishing, there's a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts...Today, we stand at the dawn of a radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch will build an air-launch system to give us orbital access to space with greater safety, flexibility, and cost effectiveness, both for cargo and for manned missions. While saying the company faces technical challenges, "by the end of this decade, Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit," Allen said. "It will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow's children something to search for in the night sky and dream about." The 120-foot-long two-stage SpaceX rocket will weigh about 490,000 pounds at launch and will be capable of boosting about 13,500 pounds to low-Earth orbit, roughly the same throw weight as a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket. In the near term, the rocket can be used to launch medium-class commercial, NASA, and military satellites into orbit. Eventually, company officials envision using the new system to launch manned capsules into orbit. "Certainly at some point ... there is the capability of this vehicle to loft a medium-size crew, say six people," said Mike Griffin, former NASA administrator and a member of the Stratolaunch board. "This vehicle has the inherent capability to do that. Whether they would visit the space station or visit another yet-to-be-developed facility or just go into space for a few days and come back, I think those scenarios are not laid out yet." By launching the rocket in mid air, Stratolaunch will be able to avoid weather delays and ground-processing issues, sending satellites to virtually any desired orbit.
But getting a half-million-pound rocket to an altitude of 30,000 feet will require a truly gargantuan carrier aircraft, a twin-fuselage plane that will be one of the largest flying machines ever built. The Russian Antonov AN-225 cargo plane, the largest operational aircraft in the world, has a wingspan of 290 feet and weighs 1.3 million pounds. Howard Hughes' flying boat, the "Spruce Goose," had a wingspan of 320 feet. The carrier aircraft envisioned by Scaled Composites will have an even larger wingspan and incorporate systems taken from two 747 jumbo jets. It is similar in appearance to a vastly scaled-up version of the carrier plane designed by Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne as part of the Ansari X-Prize competition. After winning the X-Prize, Rutan designed a larger version of SpaceShipOne for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which hopes to begin carrying paying customers on relatively short up-and-down sub-orbital flights next year. Some 500 well-heeled would-be astronauts have reserved seats with Virgin, at $200,000 a ticket, looking forward to the adrenalin rush of launch, five to eight minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view before re-entry and landing at a New Mexico spaceport.
Posted by Kevin for Socialphy!
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