Paul Allen Heads Back to Space with Stratolaunch

12/13/11Follow @curtwoodward

Noted billionaire space-geek Paul Allen is pushing for the stars again. Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, announced Tuesday that he’s teaming up with aerospace guru Burt Rutan and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk to develop a new private space flight venture called Stratolaunch Systems, which plans to send private crafts into space by launching them from the belly of a massive airplane.

Allen and Rutan previously teamed up to win the X Prize with SpaceShipOne, the first manned, private aircraft to leave the atmosphere. Allen noted that the U.S. government is stepping back from some longtime programs, including the recent end of the Space Shuttle, which leaves American astronauts hitching rides to the International Space Station with other countries.

“For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space,” Allen said.

That said, the initial plans for Stratolaunch will be for government and commercial satellites. It’s not known how long it might take to get the vehicle safe enough for manned flight—they aren’t built yet—but officials say the spacecraft already could have capacity for around five crew members under current plans. The first flights for Stratolaunch are planned “within five years,” according to the company.

More details on the project are at the Stratolaunch website. I’ve embedded the demo video below which shows the concept: An enormous jet that drops a booster rocket-propelled spacecraft from its belly, allowing a capsule to leave the atmosphere while the plane returns and lands conventionally, ready to be fitted for another launch.

Allen declined to say how much he was planning or willing to spend on the project, but did say it “is going to end up costing at least an order of magnitude more than I put into SpaceShipOne.” In Allen’s recent autobiography, he said SpaceShipOne wound up costing $28 million.

Rutan described Allen as the “absolutely perfect team member and customer” and described how they first got together on SpaceShipOne: “Essentially, what I was saying was if I had my own money, I’d put my own money into this. And Paul reached out and he said, ‘Well, Burt, we’re going to do it.’”

The plane—described as the largest ever flown—will be built by Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. It will have two fuselages and six Boeing 747 engines, weigh more than 1 million pounds, and have a wingspan topping 380 feet. The rocket will be supplied by SpaceX, a company founded by PayPal’s Musk. A third partner, Dynetics, will design the system to combine the rocket with the plane and launch it mid-air.

The three partner companies working to build the whole system will be subcontractors from Allen’s investment, but Allen also said he and the partners looked at the endeavor as a potentially viable business. Officials said they’d already done market studies on taking payloads aloft with the new system, and Allen said a manned version could also bring hefty revenues.

“I think the Russians are charging north of $60 million a seat,” Allen said. “If you can come up with—which we believe we can—a manned version of this, it could be very, very competitive with those kinds of fees.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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