Paul Allen, Supersizing Space Flight



Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen says he will build the world's largest airplane as a mobile platform for launching satellites at low cost, which he believes could transform the space industry. Andy Pasztor has details on The News Hub.

Billionaire’s Novel Vision Has Wingspan Wider Than a Football Field, Weighs 1.2 Million Pounds

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen indicated he is prepared to commit $200 million or more of his wealth to build the world’s largest airplane as a mobile platform for launching satellites at low cost, which he believes could transform the space industry.

Announced Tuesday, the novel, high-risk project conceived by renowned aerospace designer Burt Rutan seeks to combine engines, landing gears and other parts removed from old Boeing 747 jets with a newly created composite craft from Mr. Rutan and a powerful rocket to be built by a company run by Internet billionaire and commercial-space pioneer Elon Musk.

Dubbed Stratolaunch and funded by one of Mr. Allen’s closely held entities, the venture seeks to meld decades-old airplane technology with cutting-edge booster-rocket designs in an unprecedented way to assemble a hybrid that would offer the first totally privately funded space transportation system.

The ultimate goal—which has eluded corporate and government rocket scientists for decades—is to build a reliable and flexible aircraft-based launch option capable of hurling satellites as heavy as a pickup truck into low-earth orbit.

Intent on recycling parts to reduce both development time and expense, Mr. Allen nonetheless conceded in an interview that “the price of admission is stiff for these kinds of projects.”

Messrs. Rutan and Allen, who made history in 2004 by teaming up on SpaceShip One, the first privately built rocket ship to reach the edge of space, now hope to modify and supersize that same concept. Industry officials estimate Mr. Allen spent at least $25 million on their original venture, and he doesn’t dispute that.

Without releasing specific numbers, the billionaire investor and philanthropist reiterated Tuesday that the latest effort “will end up costing at least an order of magnitude more than I put into SpaceShip One.”

Stressing that he has “long dreamed about taking the next big step in space flight,” Mr. Allen released a statement emphasizing he hoped to usher in “the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry.” But in response to questions from reporters, he said Vulcan Inc., his Seattle-based investment company, wouldn’t be ready with such a large financial commitment “if we didn’t think there were going to be a lot of customers.”

Mr. Allen and his team hope to offer attractive rates well below current launch costs, which can run anywhere from $30 million to more than $200 million, depending on the weight of the payload and height of the orbit.

The concept seems to border on science fiction. It envisions a behemoth mother ship with twin, narrow fuselages, featuring six Boeing Co. 747 engines attached to a record 385-foot wingspan, plus a smaller rocket pod nestled underneath. Expected to weigh roughly 1.2 million pounds, the combination would roughly match the maximum takeoff weight of the largest, fully loaded Airbus A380 superjumbo plane, but the wings would be more than 120 feet longer than those of the Airbus A380.

Flying at roughly 30,000 feet, the craft would climb sharply just as it released the rocket, which would use a cluster of four or five engines to boost itself into orbit.

The sheer size of the endeavor presents severe engineering and production challenges. While scientists have long studied the principles of air-launched rockets—Mr. Rutan recalls beginning preliminary work on such a project as long ago as 1991—Stratolaunch Systems Inc., as the new venture is called, still hasn’t firmed up critical design details.

In an interview, Gary Wentz, a former senior National Aeronautics and Space Administration official tapped as the new company’s chief executive, suggested the business case for the project also may be fluid. He didn’t give details about the most likely types of missions and why the new system would manage to attract a wider range of customers than NASA’s phased-out Delta II rockets, which Stratolaunch hopes to replace. The Delta II’s production costs and other expenses were too high to justify serving limited government and commercial markets.

Unlike conventional rockets that blast off from a pad, air-launched systems similar to the one Mr. Allen wants to put together are designed to deliver a broad range of satellites to space without the constraints of weather or optimal times and locations to try to reach specific orbits.

As a result, the project’s motto is “any orbit, any time,” and a big selling point is that the carrier aircraft can relocate more than 1,300 miles without refueling to search for a suitable launch location.

Costs are supposed to be kept under control partly by recycling 1960’s-vintage airplane technology and partly by spreading rocket development and operating costs across various commercial, military and civilian missions. Different-size versions of the proposed rocket already have flown and are currently under development by Mr. Musk’s team for U.S. government and commercial launches, as well as for foreign customers.

If all goes well, Stratolaunch officials predict test flights of the hybrid space vehicles could begin in five years and commercial operations could commence by the end of the decade. “I’m optimistic because we’re reusing so much existing technology,” Mr Allen said.

Ultimately, the aim is to spur human space flight, though the officials acknowledged work on a capsule that potentially could carry astronauts or, less likely, a spaceplane with wings vaguely resembling NASA’s retired space shuttles, remains at an early stage.

Mr. Rutan, renowned for his engineering prowess and penchant for secrecy, said in an in interview that one of the nagging questions had been “whether you could build something big enough to deliver a significant payload to orbit.” The plan calls for launching satellites weighing up to 13,500 pounds.

Scaled Composites LLC of Mojave, Calif., the company Mr. Rutan founded and sold to Northrop Grumman Corp. years ago, is slated to build the all-composite structure. Mr. Rutan retired a few months ago but agreed to sit on the new company’s board. Speaking of his close relationship with Mr. Allen and calling the former Microsoft chief technologist “a visionary” when it comes to space flight, Mr. Rutan said “he is more than someone you just go to for money.”

The 58-year-old billionaire, along with high-school classmate Bill Gates, wrote the programming language that led to the founding of Microsoft.Since he left Microsoft in 1983, Mr. Allen has launched into a variety of enterprises. He founded a rock museum in Seattle as well as a computer museum that houses old mammoth-sized servers. He and owns the Seattle Seahawks football team and the Portland Trailblazers basketball team. He lost $8 billion in his investment with cable company Charter Communications when it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009.

The proposed launch system also brings into the mix a third high-profile champion of commercial space flight: Mr. Musk, who so far has spent some $100 million of his personal fortune on Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a Southern California start-up that last December became the first commercial entity to successfully launch and recover a capsule from outside the atmosphere. His company, called SpaceX, is slated to supply a slimmed-down version of its Falcon 9 rocket.

With its historic breakthrough, SpaceShip One helped give birth to the fledgling space-tourism industry—its basic design was embraced by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic LLC suborbital project. Virgin Galactic also harbors dreams of satellite launches, but its primary focus will be giving thrill rides exposing passengers briefly to the sensations of weightlessness.

In a statement Tuesday, the Virgin Galactic chief said he welcomed the announcement because “the potential of the industry we are leading is immense, but will depend on the continuing emergence of truly safe, affordable and transformative technologies.” Messrs. Allen And Rutan, the statement said, boast a “record in that respect (that) is unmatched.”

The latest brainchild of Mr. Allen, who also thought earlier about launching a space-tourism venture, suggests the logical evolution of commercial space efforts. Until now, the budding industry has primarily featured companies operating on their own and typically eschewing connections to mainstream space firms or leaders. But Stratolaunch Systems, based in Huntsville, Ala., the center of traditional U.S. rocket design, has former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, as directors.

Write to Andy Pasztor at and Dionne Searcey at
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