On December 17, 2011, science, tech, and aerospace journalists assembled at Vulcan headquarters in Seattle, Washington. They gathered to hear about a new space project from Paul Allen and Burt Rutan, the duo who collaborated to propel the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne to the first private spaceflight seven years earlier. As the crowd settled in their seats, Paul Allen stepped up to the microphone.
“When I was growing up, America’s space program was the symbol of possibility and aspiration, the affirmation that nothing was beyond our reach,” Allen said. “For me, the fascination with space never ended, and I never stopped dreaming about what might be possible. Today we stand at the dawn of a radical change to the space launch industry. Stratolaunch will build an air launch system to give us orbital access to space with greater safety, flexibility, and cost effectiveness—both for cargo and manned missions. ”
With the help of Rutan and Mike Griffin, a former chief administrator of NASA, Allen outlined an ambitious vision for another record-breaking spacecraft system. Stratolaunch Systems would use the largest aircraft ever built to launch a rocket into space from Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Stratolaunch’s carrier craft, named the Roc after a mythical bird that carried an elephant in its talons, will have a wingspan as long as a football field. It will use six 747 engines to carry a 120’ multi-stage booster that will release at 30,000 feet, blasting off into space. The rocket will carry payloads of up to 13,500 lbs. into orbit, providing relatively easy access to space for scientific or commercial missions.
While Stratolaunch Systems is headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, it is being fabricated and tested in Mojave, California. The world’s largest aircraft will require a massive roof to house it in, so in March 2013, Stratolaunch opened the doors to a gigantic 103,257-square-foof hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Development is underway with partner Scaled Composites with the goal of being fully in service by the end of the decade. When the massive Roc takes flight with a rocket under its wing for the first time, it will be a sight many would never have thought possible.