Stratolaunch Systems announces "a radical change in the space launch industry"


December 13, 2011

Stratolaunch Systems has announced its planned air-launch-to-orbit system, which will get spacecraft into orbit using the largest aircraft ever flown

Stratolaunch Systems has announced its planned air-launch-to-orbit system, which will get spacecraft into orbit using the largest aircraft ever flown

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Seven years ago, philanthropist Paul G. Allen collaborated with aerospace expert Burt Rutan, to create SpaceShipOne - the first privately-funded, manned rocket ship to fly beyond Earth's atmosphere, and winner of the Ansari X PRIZE. Now, in the post-Shuttle era, the two men have reunited to create a reusable vehicle for launching both manned and unmanned rockets into space. The project was announced in Seattle today.

Allen and Rutan's new company, Stratolaunch Systems, will be developing a mobile launch system consisting of three main components.

The first will be an enormous carrier aircraft, made by Rutan's company Scaled Composites. With a wingspan of over 380 feet (116 m), packing six 747 engines and weighing over 1.2 million pounds (544,311 kg), it will be the largest aircraft ever flown.

Mounted underneath the aircraft's SpaceShipOne-like twin bodies will be a multi-stage booster, which in turn will be attached to the spacecraft. Built by Space Exploration Technologies, this 490,000-pound (222,260-kg) booster will fire once it has been released from the aircraft, carrying the spacecraft into orbit.

The third component of the system will be a mating and integration system, which will allow the aircraft to safely carry and release its payload. It will be designed by aerospace engineering firm Dynetics.

The aircraft will be constructed in a dedicated Stratolaunch hangar, which will reportedly soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Hopefully, the first flight should be taking place within five years. According to the company, its air-launch-to-orbit system "will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems." Turnaround time between launches should also be much shorter than is currently possible, allowing for a larger number of launches within a given time period.

Once built, the aircraft will likely operate out of a large airport/spaceport, such as the Kennedy Space Center. It will require a runway at least 12,000 feet (3,658 m) long, and be able to fly to launch points up to 1,300 nautical miles (2,407 km) away.

"I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne - to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system," Allen said today. "We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry."

More details are available on the currently heavily-taxed Stratolaunch Systems website, and in the video below.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

This is nothing new... What the video does not show is how the stage boosters are being recovered... will that even be done? If not, just more space junk of which some may drop on our heads!

Theo Viljoen

I\'m not sure how much benefit they get from an aerial launch, but I suppose they could fly their rocket to an equatorial launch position which can help somewhat.

For some reason the picture remind me of the Spruce Goose. I hope it turns out more successfully.


yeah if they can launch at say 30K of altitude or more, that is through the thickest part of the atmosphere and 1/3 of the way into orbit, using air breathing engines only. Much smaller rocket, or much bigger load.

The bastards have actually stolen my idea....

Mr Stiffy

They are going to have to make that wing incredibly strong. Some of the time it has a very heavy rocket and part of the time there is none; that can easily lead to fatigue or bending to the point that the aerodynamics are very different between the two states. As for \"stealing\" the idea, the Pegasus rocket has the same launch scenario...high altitude plane plus rocket that separates and launches into orbit. They have just gone big so the rocket can be manned...hardly is just all the sweat and engineering know-how as well as the actuality of initiating making such a craft that is worth acknowledging.


Hmm I\'m not sure I follow this idea. Attaining orbit is about velocity, not about altitude (so much). Quick wikipedia check says for a circular low earth orbit, you need a velocity of 6.9 to 7.8 km/s. This aircraft will only get a fraction of that (by my estimation around 0.2 km/s).

Will this really save so much? Normal orbital vehicles usually get through the atmosphere in seconds, with little additional expenditure of fuel as I have it.


people above forget that many rocket launches are delayed due to weather conditions. this is a reusable launch system that can travel to spaces with launchable conditions.

They mentioned this yet people above didn\'t read?

this system allows for a faster turn around time to the next mission and can be used as a massive transport vehicle when not launching rockets.


Jacob Shepley

If I could choose how that much money was going to be spent - I would prefer that instead of bailing out Wall Street and the banks, put a stop to the bleeding economy and the housing brake down. What kind of message is this sending to struggling tax payers?


They could have used only four GE90-115B engine from the 777-300ER instead of the six from the 747.


Finally! \"Space the final frontier\" may be as accessible as your nearest neighborhood watering hole.

Myron J. Poltroonian

@ joe1946 Maybe the 747 Engines were either cheaper or easier to obtain that the others mentioned.

As for the other people doing the complaining. All I have to say is it's people like you that have held back progress over the centuries. If you had your way, we would all still be dressing in animal skins and living in caves. I have to agree with Jacob Shepley and his statement of "GO SCIENCE"


@Otiose The first 1/3 of the journey to space is the most expensive, requiring you to lift the payload, the hardware, and the fuel to get it there. A tank full of JP5 or other jet fuel is much cheaper, safer, and easier to handle. The turnaround for the transport would be little more than a fill-up and preflight checks, once the payload is attached.

They didn\'t mention payload capacity and that will ultimately determine viability of the system. Whether it will be man rated or capable is another question. This could be a great platform for rescue missions, if man capable, or if it could deliver an empty, reentry capable, rescue capsule to a stricken craft. Lots of possibilities here. Best of luck to Mr. Allen and Mr. Rutan et al

Dave C

I think this was already done on a much smaller scale with an Orbital Sciences(?) bird designed by scaled launched from a B-52


@ Mr Stiffy. Unless you patented the idea of using aircraft to launch rockets, I don\'t think you have much of a claim. Especially since the original idea for the Space Shuttle was NOT to launch with boosters, but from a dedicated air vehicle.


Derek Meddings must be credited for this concept!! In the \"U.F.O.\" TV series (1970-71), an Earth- Moon shuttle can be seen detaching from a bigger carrier-plane when flying to the Moon Base (ah, Lt. Ellis, how much we loved you) or being docked to same carrier when coming back to Earth

Blind Librarian

skylon spaceplane

Dave GearHead

When I see six engines on a plane, I think of the mighty Convair B-36, a cold war bomber that was in service for around a decade.

It did have issues with 'giantism', such as stress points that became weakened over time, but these were largely overcome.

It had six propeller engines and four jet engines, with a wingspan of around 230 feet.

Matt Stone

Stolen your idea?!!! Really guy's, how old are you? The original design for the NASA Space Shuttle, (1970?), was a dedicated aircraft platform using a combination of rocket assist launch modules, high bypass turbo fans and SCRAM Jets to deliver the shuttle, (and smaller recoverable fuel tank) to 70K ft. @ M3-4. The system would have drastically lowered the $/lb delivered to orbit and reduced mission turn-around times to 2 weeks. The design also included integrated on-board fuel providing the shuttle with one abort landing / go-around capability and a fully detachable crew module that could be safely jettisoned in the event of sub-orbital mishap. The $15 billion price tag was deemed by congress to be far to expensive. NASA was given the mandate to find a $5 billion alternative if they wanted to continue manned space flight. The rest is (sad) history that effectively highlights why uneducated bureaucrats should not be included in technical project development decisions. Given the comparative turnaround expense the extra $10B would have been quickly offset, the platform would have been able to deliver redesigned shuttle versions for many decades and we would still have a space program... Your idea - Really?

Ian Trask

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