Microsoft co-founder unveils space travel plans

2011-12-14 11:21

Washington - A giant aeroplane that can, in mid-flight, launch a rocket carrying cargo and humans into orbit is the future of space travel, billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said on Tuesday.

The first test flight of the ambitious venture by Allen's new company Stratolaunch Systems is not scheduled until 2015, but partners in the project vowed it would revolutionise orbital travel in the post-space shuttle era.

Using engines from six Boeing 747 jets, the biggest airliner ever built, would tote a rocket made by SpaceX and be able to launch payloads, satellites, and some day, humans, into low-Earth orbit, said Allen, 58.

While he declined to say how much he was investing, Allen said it would be more than he spent on SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 was the first commercial craft to complete a suborbital flight and reportedly cost about $25m to develop.

"For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space," Allen told reporters, referring to the US space shuttle's retirement this year and the first American to orbit the Earth aboard Mercury 7 in 1962.

Radical change

"Today we stand at the dawn of a radical change in the space launch industry," Allen said, vowing greater flexibility than ground-based rocket launches and better cost effectiveness for cargo and manned missions to space.

"It will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow's children something to search for in the night sky and dream about."

Designs for the massive jet with a wingspan greater than a football field, a collaboration with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan who designed SpaceShipOne, are at an advanced stage and a hangar is under construction in the Mojave desert.

"It is relatively close to building, as soon as we can get a building big enough," said Rutan.

Talks are under way about potential take-off points, since the plane would need a 3 650m runway, available at larger airports and air force bases.

The aircraft would "use six 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 544 000kg and a wingspan of more than 117m”, press materials said.

The plane would take off and while in flight, deploy the rocket and send cargo into low-Earth orbit. The first test flight could take place in 2015, and the first launch could happen by 2016.

Allen and Rutan's project, SpaceShipOne, was followed by Virgin Galactic's commercial suborbital SpaceShipTwo programme.

A common endeavour

Former Nasa administrator Mike Griffin, who is on the board of the Alabama-based Stratolaunch, said the project furthers the goal of making space travel a common endeavour.

"We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets," Griffin said.

Advantages include the flexibility to launch from a larger number of locations, and potential cargo markets include the communications satellite industry, and Nasa and US department of defence unmanned scientific satellites, Griffin said.

Allen's announcement adds a new company to the race to replace the US space shuttle by offering an alternative made by private industry for carrying humans to low-Earth orbit.

The end of the space shuttle after 30 years has left Russia as the sole nation capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost per seat that will rise to $63m in the coming years.

"So if you can come up with - which we believe we can - a manned version of this, we can be very, very competitive with those kinds of fees," said Allen, who resigned from Microsoft after being diagnosed with cancer in 1983.

Three subcontractors on the project include Scaled Composites which is building the aircraft, SpaceX which is contributing a multi-stage booster rocket based on its Falcon 9, and Dynetics.

SpaceX, run by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has already successfully test-launched its Dragon capsule into orbit and back and is planning a cargo and berthing mission to the International Space Station in February.

"You have a certain number of dreams in your life that you want to fulfil and this is a dream I am very excited about seeing come to fruition," Allen said.

  • Zion - 2011-12-14 11:33

    Look and see that this guy has a couple of band-aids for his trouble.

      Fredster69 - 2011-12-14 14:55

      I wonder if he announced it using his iPhone? LOL

  • raath - 2011-12-14 11:36

    He looks like a Sith Lord.

  • Klipkop - 2011-12-14 11:45

    Lets hope they dont install Windows Vista as OS.

      Trevor Lovell - 2011-12-14 12:58

      Or millennium edition for that matter

  • jody.beggs - 2011-12-14 11:55

    Where do it deposit the million dollars for the ticket ?

  • JNaMolefe - 2011-12-14 12:16

    Let's hope they dont install Windows 3.1 as OS!!!!

  • ludlowdj - 2011-12-14 12:36

    This technology is nothing more than a waste of funds at present. Man will not be in any position to take advantage of space within the lifetime of us or our kids or their kids, we simply do not have the technology to make any sort of financially viable space flights in the foreseeable future, a sentiment echoed by the US Government which is allowing other countries to bear the development costs after closing down its own facilities. This is nothing more than a rich mans (1%) novelty and will remain so for at least another 100 years.

      Wollie - 2011-12-14 13:20

      Well we went form th first powerd flight to putting a man on the moon in about 65 years. So I would not put it beyond us to achieve commercial exploitation of space in the VERY near futute

  • jmahoney - 2011-12-14 13:22

    Will the emergency exits have Control-Alt-Delete above them?

  • Ed - 2011-12-14 13:38

    wow...and to think that Elon Musk is a south african and was the first person to launch themselves into space with his spacex program. no matter what ludlow and others say, without people like this we would not have techonology, PC's, the internet etc... Ludlow, until you actually do something that is visionary and ahead of its time and therefore become an entrepreneur and pioneer, nobody will ever remember you. in fact, who are you cos i have not heard of you. i have heard of these guys and one day future generations will too. cool to know that in 20 or 30 years, it will be even more possible for even us normal folk to go to space. awesome.

  • Zion - 2011-12-14 15:28

    This concept is as old as the mountains. The main draw-back is the huge amount of fuel that is used to carry the payload and the fuel for the payload plus its own fuel and its own mass which, if we can go by the description is huge. Six 747 engines is not quite your gholfy or beetle.

      raath - 2011-12-14 15:31

      So you would you say your fuel tank is half full or half empty? Sounds like the latter to me ;)

  • Clarissa - 2011-12-14 15:43

    Where do we buy tickets? Or who do I have to date oin order to get into space? Whoo hoo!

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