The twin-fuselage Stratolaunch airplane, the world’s largest aircraft, is designed to carry three space rockets up to the ceiling of the Troposphere, and then conduct an air launch of the rockets — blasting a satellite or spacecraft into outer space.
Paul Allen, the founder of Stratolaunch (as well as co-founder of Microsoft), progressed one step closer to flight last week, when his aircraft practiced taxing down the airstrip, reaching a top speed of 46 mph, according to the Washington Post.
Paul Allen established the aerospace startup in 2011. More than seven years later from inception, the experimental six 747 jet engine behemoth plane has yet to take flight, which has a wingspan greater than any previous aircraft on record; even more significant than business tycoon Howard Hughes’s famed Spruce Goose from the 1940s. The plane is designed to tether three space rockets to the center wing, then fly up to 35,000 feet to conduct an air launch of the rockets (demonstrated below).
Back in 2016, Stratolaunch signed an exclusive agreement with Orbital ATK, a Dulles, Virginia-based company, for its aircraft to use Orbital rockets to air-launch satellites into low earth orbit. Under the multi-year production-based partnership, Orbital ATK will provide “multiple” Pegasus XL air-launch missiles for the Stratolaunch aircraft.
In an exclusive interview last summer, Washington Post’s Christian Davenport sat down with Allen and Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch System’s chief executive, about their future ambitions for the aircraft. The interview was part of Allen’s forthcoming book called The Space Barons.
“I would love to see us have a fully reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going,” Allen said in an interview in his Seattle office.
Captured new video of @Stratolaunch plane as it reached a top taxi speed of 40 knots (46 mph) with all flight surfaces in place on Sunday. The team verified control responses, building on the first taxi tests conducted in December. pic.twitter.com/OcH1ZkxZRA
— Paul Allen (@PaulGAllen) February 26, 2018
Internally, the company calls the shuttle proposal “Black Ice.” Here is how Davenport describes the proposed shuttle program launched from a Stratolaunch:
The Black Ice space plane — 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. 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. 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,” he added.
Davenport indicates the company is focused on the maiden flight of Stratolaunch, which could come in the second half of 2018. Once the Stratolaunch conducts a successful test flight, Allen could then initiate the Black Ice program.
“If you caught the bug back in the Mercury era, of course, it’s in the back of your mind, 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,” Allen said in the interview.
Allen offered limited technical details but did explain that the Black Ice program could produce a shuttle about the seize as NASA’s space shuttle, which has roughly a 24-meter wingspan. Because of the Stratolaunch aircraft’s mobility, the shuttle can launch from any large airport in the world. Further, the system is fully reusable, with the airplane serving as the first stage and the Black Ice shuttle serving as the second stage — blasting spacecraft into outer space.
Last summer, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson stopped by to visit the Stratolaunch aircraft, writing on Twitter that she had “the chance to see firsthand how Stratolaunch is developing an air-launch platform to make space more accessible.”
— Dr. Heather Wilson (@SecAFOfficial) July 18, 2017
Last Fall, Vice President Pence visited the plane in its hangar and was absolutely stunned by how many throttles the aircraft had.
— Graham Warwick (@TheWoracle) October 11, 2017
“With the shift from large to small satellites, the smallsat market could reach $30.1B in the next 10 years,” said Straolaunch’s Twitter.
— Stratolaunch (@Stratolaunch) July 14, 2017
The one big question: Who will finance the Black Ice project?
Paul Allen’s net worth is somewhere around $21.7 billion, but perhaps, as shown above, Vice President Pence and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson have taken huge interest into the giant airplane, which could allude to the taxpayer ultimately footing the bill.
According to Geek Wire, Stratolaunch was recently a hot topic at a House subcommittee hearing on NASA’s budget. U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif., asked NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, whether he saw the prospect of “a good partnership” with companies like Stratolaunch.Lightfoot said NASA’s approach to commercial launch services “really allows new entrants to come in.”“We have a really good on-ramping way for them to demonstrate their capability, and become part of our toolbox to get our missions done,” he said. “So, yeah, absolutely, we see an opportunity for those folks.”
Stratolaunch could soon offer a low-cost solution for corporations and government entities in launching satellites and or spacecraft into outer space. So far, Elon Musk has yet to respond to this startling development which could derail his SpaceX program.