Paul Allen Is Cooking Up Something Big in the California Desert

Paul Allen Is Cooking Up Something Big in the California DesertPaul Allen’s Next Project Could Be Huge for Space Travel

The airplane boasting the largest wingspan in the world is still in its project stage, but Paul Allen of Microsoft Corporation fame, one of the key figures behind the plane’s development through his company Vulcan Aerospace, is sure it will fly in 2016.

Scaled Composites, the company that has adopted this ambitious target, is located in California’s Mojave Desert. Scaled Composites could complete assembly of the aircraft, the carrier platform for “Stratolaunch,” in 2016. Allen is one of the key figures behind the project, nicknamed “Roc.”  (Source: “Defense & Space Technologies To Watch In 2016,” Aviation Week, December 25, 2015.)

Vulcan Aerospace is dedicated to developing the Stratolaunch, among other special aircraft. The plane will be used for launching spacecraft and orbiters, thus avoiding the enormous costs incurred from launches directly from the ground. The innovative aircraft is inspired by “SpaceShipOne,” which in 2004, won the “Ansari X” prize as the first private aircraft to reach space twice in less than two weeks, on June 21, 2004 and October 4, 2004. SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of 100 km (about 62 miles), carrying the equivalent of three people. (Source: “SpaceShipOne Wins $10 Million Ansari X Prize in Historic 2nd Trip to Space,” Space.com, October 4, 2004.)

The aircraft features six “Boeing 747” engines and a composite twin-fuselage configuration with a 385-foot wingspan—that’s more than a football field. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace wants to offer its own solution to addressing the high costs and long delays common in the business of launching satellites into space, as well as payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond.

The brainchild of Paul Allen and famed airplane designer Burt Rutan, the Roc can take off from any runway, carrying a rocket with its human, equipment, or satellite payload in the middle of two fuselages. The rocket continues into space and orbit after the Roc releases it in the atmosphere, avoiding weather-related and other unpredictable and volatile delays. The Roc has a gross weight of a monstrous 1.3 million pounds.

The airplane will be built near the Mojave Spaceport in California, a large, unprecedented 200,000-square-meter facility. The Roc is, in effect, an airplane that will travel to the regular commercial airliner altitude of 33,000 feet at high altitude, reducing and minimizing costs and risks, releasing huge rockets, making them adapt to low earth orbit.

The Roc is essentially a much larger version of “SpaceShipTwo” used by Virgin Galactic.

Vulcan Aerospace’s predecessor, Stratolaunch Systems, cut ties with its previous partner, SpaceX, in 2012 because its “launch vehicle design has departed significantly from the Falcon derivative vehicle envisioned by SpaceX and does not fit well with their long-term strategic business model.” (Source: “Check Out Paul Allen’s Giant Rocket-Toting Monster Plane,” PC Magazine, February 26, 2015.)

Vulcan wanted to use Orbital ATK Inc. “Pegasus II” rockets, but that relationship has come to a close recently. (Source: “Paul Allen’s Vulcan counters WSJ story, says Stratolaunch still on track,” Puget Sound Business Journal, November 20, 2015.) Thus, Paul Allen’s Vulcan is still searching for a partner for its latest technology.

Regardless, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace and Scaled Composites’ latest space project—an airplane capable of cutting rocket launch costs and still contributing to the delivery of payloads to the ISS and beyond—is worth watching.

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