Business

Why is Microsoft co-founder building world's largest airplane?

Stratolaunch has 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines and a wingspan longer than a football field

Stratolaunch Systems Corp.

Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch airplane emerges from its hangar in Mojave, Calif., this past summer.
Stratolaunch Systems Corp. Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch airplane emerges from its hangar in Mojave, Calif., this past summer.

A massive airplane being built by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen moved a step closer to flight last week, when it crept out of its hangar in Mojave, Calif., and practiced rolling down the runway, hitting a top speed of 46 mph.

Known as Stratolaunch, the plane has a wingspan even greater than that of business mogul Howard Hughes’ famed Spruce Goose and is designed to carry as many as three rockets, tethered to its belly, to about 35,000 feet.

Once aloft, the rockets would drop, then fire their engines and deliver satellites to orbit.

But Allen has even bigger ambitions for Stratolaunch and is considering pairing it with a new space shuttle that’s known inside the company as Black Ice.

In interviews last summer, Allen and Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch System’s chief executive, laid out the company’s plans for the giant plane, providing an answer to why anyone would want to build an aircraft that has 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines and a wingspan longer than a football field.

“I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going,” Allen said in an interview, while sitting in his Seattle office.

The Black Ice spaceplane — should it be built — would be about as big as the former space shuttle developed by NASA and capable of staying up for at least three days.

It could be launched from virtually anywhere in the world, as long as the runway could accommodate Stratolaunch’s size.

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And it would be capable of flying to the International Space Station, taking satellites and experiments to orbit, and maybe one day, even people — though there are no plans for that in the near term.

And then it would land back on the runway, ready to fly again.

“You make your rocket a plane,” Floyd said. “So you have an airplane carrying a plane that’s fully reusable. You don’t throw anything away ever. Only fuel.”

For now, the company is focused on the maiden flight of Stratolaunch, which could come later this year. Then it would decide whether to pursue Black Ice.

Returning to human spaceflight could be a possibility sometime in the future, said Allen, the billionaire entrepreneur, who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and now owns the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks.

“If you caught the bug back in the Mercury era, of course it’s in the back of your mind,” he said. “But I think you’re seeing right now, other than (space station) resupply missions, most spaceflights are about launching satellites. That’s the reality.

“And they are extremely important for everything from television to data all over the world. You can get data in the Kalahari desert because there’s a satellite up there.”

l This story is adapted from the forthcoming book, “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeffrey P. Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.”

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