Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stratolaunch system a SpaceShipOne on Steroids

Aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan is thinking big in his latest venture with Microsoft co-founder and SpaceShipOne partner Paul Allen, announcing earlier this week that they were again teaming up to develop the largest aircraft ever built as an airborne launch platform for a SpaceX powered rocket which may begin flight tests in 2015.
The creation of Huntsville, Ala. Based Stratolaunch Systems was heralded as a possible gem in the Florida Space Coast region’s crown as Allen acknowledged that one of the few runways able to support the mammoth flying launcher exists in as the former Shuttle Landing Strip at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. If built, the launch aircraft would have twin fuselages and six 747 capable turbofans and a wingspan of 385-feet – twice as wide as a 747 aircraft and longer than the main truss of the International Space Station.
The design resembles an oversized version of the White Knight carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic’s  SpaceShipTwo, another Rutan design. Senator Bill Nelson urged Florida Governor Rick Scott to reach out to Stratolaunch through the state’s aerospace economic development agency Space Florida. It may not be that far a reach given the area’s skilled employee resources and the numerous other space oriented businesses in the area. Some of the promotional materials released by Stratolaunch depict the aircraft operating from Kennedy Space Center and show the Vehicle Assembly Building in the background. reported:
(Stratolaunch)  CEO Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA, said only that the company was “in discussions” about potential launch sites.
NASA officials confirmed KSC is one of those sites.
“We’re pleased to be considered as a potential operations site for this new launch system,” said Allard Beutel, a Kennedy spokesman. “We don’t have any agreements in place, but we’re hoping (the center) can prove to be an economical partner for Stratolaunch Systems and others in this growing space industry.”
The technology involved would include a rocket component to be developed by space upstart SpaceX, which is independently developing its own cargo carrier and commercial crew transportation system, the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket.
Scaled Composites, the company Rutan founded, will build the aircraft in a hangar under construction in Mojave, Calif., the site of early test flights. Recently retired, Rutan will provide guidance from Stratolaunch’s board.
SpaceX will build a shorter, lighter version of its Falcon 9 rocket in Hawthorne, Calif., including a first stage powered by four or five Merlin engines. Dynetics of Huntsville will design the mating and integration system.
The concept video shows the carrier aircraft pitching upward at altitude before dropping a booster equipped with tail fins. The rocket engines then light to continue the journey to space while the plane returns to its runway.
Spacecraft specifications weren’t confirmed, but pictures suggest it is based on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which is being upgraded to fly up to seven people.
No costs were disclosed Tuesday, but Allen said he expected to invest “an order of magnitude” more than the SpaceShipOne effort, which reportedly cost $25 million.
We’ve linked to the coverage at where additional resources include videos and photos from the announcement on Tuesday.

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