Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen this week unveiled artist renderings this week for a new, twin-fuselage airplane being developed by his commercial space travel venture, StratoLaunch. The plane will be powered by six Boeing 747 engines, have a wing span of 380 feet, and will be the largest airplane ever built. The airplane will carry rockets up to an altitude of 30,000 feet, where the rockets will fire and propel themselves into orbit, leaving the plane to return to Earth and await the next mission.
Use of the plane, which will require an extended runway stretching about 12,000 feet, will make weather much less of a limiting factor in launches, plus will save money in the form of expensive rocket fuel that will not be needed to propel the rockets into the upper atmosphere. The project is reportedly well under way, and the first test flights of the system are scheduled for 2016. Allen says he hopes to eventually use the StratoLaunch system to carry both cargo and people into space.
StratoLaunch is but one of a number of projects aimed at commercializing space flight as an emerging private space industry looks to pick up where NASA left off when it ended the space shuttle program earlier this year. With no commercial options available yet, NASA has been forced to rent seats aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts into space, an unsavory necessity which Allen, Virgin head Richard Branson and others are trying to remedy.