COLORADO SPRINGS — The massive airplane that Paul Allen’s aerospace company has been building in the California desert could fly for the first time as soon as this summer, officials said.
If it flies successfully, Stratolaunch, as the plane is called, would be the largest aircraft ever to take to the skies. At 385 feet long, its wingspan is bigger than the length of a football field and larger than Howard Hughes’s World War II-era Spruce Goose.
Stratolaunch would be used to “air launch” small rockets that could take satellites to orbit. The plane would reach about 35,000 feet, the rockets would drop, fire their engines and then blast into space.
Startolaunch is so big that it has 28 wheels and is powered by six 747 engines and would have a maximum weight at takeoff of 1.3 million pounds. It would be capable of carrying as many as three Pegasus rockets, made by Dulles-based Orbital ATK, into the skies. Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, and company officials told The Washington Post last summer that they are also considering building a massive space shuttle, known as Black Ice, which could ferry even larger satellites — and maybe, one day, people.
But Allen’s main goal is making space more accessible and helping launch constellations of small satellites that could help monitor the health of the planet, track animals, spot illegal fishing and assess the effects of global warning.
Allen’s main question is: “How does this help the world, that’s really what this man [Allen] is all about,” said a company official, who would only speak anonymously.
In a briefing with reporters at the Space Symposium here, company officials said that taxi tests were going well and that they felt confident the plane would soon be able to take to the skies after years of development.
“It’s just a giant wing, and that thing is just going to jump off the runway,” the official said.
Skeptics have wondered whether Allen made the plane too big at a time when the industry is moving to launching more small satellites, instead of large ones that require powerful launch vehicles. But officials said they have plans, including the Black Ice concept, that they will unveil closer to the plane's first flight.