Space travel has been in Paul Allen’s blood and brain since he was a child. But since his breakthrough success in 2004 with SpaceShipOne* (piloted by Burt Rutan, and winner of the Ansari Xprize), Paul Allen seemed to have lagged behind in the private sector race to capitalize on space.
In recent years, other billionaires like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have launched their own private space flight enterprises, with little news from the Allen camp (apart from his funding of Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites).
But if anyone had any doubts about Allen’s intentions to be the leader in private space flight, a press conference last month (December 13) laid these to rest, as Allen announced his revolutionary Stratolaunch Systems venture.
As envisioned by Allen, Stratolaunch Systems will focus its efforts on an “air launch system to give us orbital access to space with greater safety, flexibility and cost effectiveness, both for cargo and manned missions.” (source: Paul Allen, Dec. 13, 2011 press conference).
A collaboration, Rutan’s company will build the carrier for the Stratolaunch aircraft; the system design is being described as a “radical change in the space launch industry”. Air launching of rockets in this manner will give them a 5 – 10% performance boost, which is actually a significant amount of boosting in the space launch field, where a small increase in efficiency pays of big time in terms of cost and risk minimization.
Other partners in the Stratolaunch venture are SpaceX (makers of Falcon launch vehicles and Dragon spacecraft), and Dynetics (creators of the DOD’s Massive Ordinance Air Blast system (MOAB), utilized during the early days of the Iraq War.
More Details on the Stratolaunch aircraft
The heart of the venture will be the world’s largest aircraft with a wingspan of 385 feet (about 1/3 longer than a football field).
The Stratolaunch craft will be powered by six 747 engines and will have a gross weight of 1.2 million pounds.
Additionally, it will have an ‘orbital mission range of 1300 nautical miles’, and will be “available for alternative cargo transport missions of up to 9200 miles”, with “13, 500 lbs deliverable to low earth orbit.”
Allen’s vision for the Stratolaunch System is an “orbital space platform” capable of achieving “any orbit, any time.”
Watch the Allen’s press conference and video simulation of the Stratolaunch System (article continues below):
Future Challenges for Private Space Flight
This latter claim (“any orbit, any time.”) is rather bold, for although the craft will be able to fly or ascend to the optimal weather conditions for launch (any payload would be launched from the craft in high altitude flight), launches into space also depend upon a clear ‘space junk’ (orbital debris) window. This messy legacy of 50+ years of space missions will become an increasing problem as we pass the mid-century mark.
The issue of space junk (or ‘astro trash’ as the Europeans say) accumulation is becoming more pressing, with recent space junk collisions (in high earth orbit) adding to the problem (note: 2007 LEO to GEO simulations show increases in debris being off-set by orbital re-entry or decay of debris, with total debris beginning to increase after 2050; see my earlier post: Report: ‘Space Junk’ Accumulation Is Past ‘Tipping Point’, NASA Urged to Clean It Up)
Apart from this concern, there remains the fact that, more than likely, space flight will remain a luxury indulgence of the rich, given current estimates for a single trip to the edge of space at bout 200,000.00 USD (one could envision ‘space flight grants’ to impoverished youth, of course, but those don’t pay the bills). But, you can reserve a spot (on Virgin Galactic) for a 10% down payment. This flight will take passengers to ‘the edge of space’ (at 62 miles up), and back, for what will likely be a 30 – 45 minute trip.
However, with the expressed cargo carrying capacity of Stratolaunch, Allen cunningly makes his system available for service and transport missions (e.g., to the ISS) which presumably would be commercially contracted with space-faring nations/governments around the globe. This revenue stream could bring the cost of ‘space tourism’ down appreciably, perhaps to the level of purchasing a medium-priced sports car.
* SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded manned spacecraft to travel outside the atmosphere (‘the edge of space’) twice in a two week span.
Top/bottom images: http://www.stratolaunch.com/presskit.html