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It pays to think big!

December 14, 2011

Stratolaunch

While NASA is fooling around with their latest stimulus program – oops, I mean their heavy lifter expendable booster – others are going ahead and finding smarter ways to get into orbit than what Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called “disintegrating totem poles.”

This monstrosity, the brainchild of Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, looks at first glance to be something to show up on the cover of Popular Science and then vanish into obscurity as something too outrageous to actually be practical. There’s just a couple of problems with that.

First, Paul Allen (yep, billionaire Paul Allen from Microsoft) has the ambition AND the money to make it happen.

Second, Scaled Composites is building the plane. This is Burt Rutan’s company (that he sold to Northrop Grumman) that built the SpaceShipOne for the X-Prize and is building the follow-on versions for Virgin Galactic.

The actual orbital vehicle is to be built by SpaceX, based on the Dragon capsule and technology from the Falcon launch vehicle, which has already proven itself in several launches. In fact, the first real test of the Dragon in orbit should occur in February, flying one by remote to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon vehicle berthed at the ISS (NASA image)

The new company, Stratolaunch Systems, is headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama. In addition to Scaled Composites and SpaceX, they have chosen a company called Dynetics of Huntsville to build the mating device that attaches the rocket vehicle to the plane.

The company has some heavy hitters: former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is on the board, and the CEO and President is Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA.

The plane will be the largest in the world: a wingspan of 380 feet, gross takeoff weight of 1.2 million pounds, and it will require six jet engines that were designed for the Boeing 747 to power it. It can’t fly from just anywhere; it takes a runway at least 12,000 feet long. It will be built at the Mojave Space Port in a new hangar that will be constructed just for the plane.

The other day, I mentioned that the USAF was planning to use a reusable flyback booster of a design similar to those that have been planned for decades. There’s nothing wrong with that – people have devoted thousands of hours to designs for a flyback of this type and it should be an excellent intermediate step.

This plane is the next step. Build a fully reusable first stage for a launch vehicle – in this case, an aircraft instead of a rocket-powered first stage. Give it excellent abort characteristics. You have just eliminated the lion’s share of the launch vehicle weight by flying the rocket to a reasonable altitude and speed. Something goes wrong and you either abort and fly the whole package home, or drop the rocket and let the Dragon use its abort rocket system. Oh, and it means the crew – and yes, eventually this plane is designed to fly crewed Dragons – won’t be sitting on a gigantic stack of thin metal balloons filled with explosives. (That is, after all, what a rocket-powered launch vehicle is.)

This is the most encouraging news I’ve heard in a long time about a permanent space presence. If someone else had proposed it, I probably would have dismissed it as another great idea with no follow-through. These guys have a proven track record, and the funding to make it happen.

And it will be damned impressive to see in the air, won’t it?

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