Dec
20
2011

Spruce Goose Part Deuce: Space Plane!

The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.
The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.Courtesy Stratolaunch Systems
Billionaire and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was always told that the sky was the limit.

Oh, and how those words chafed at him. They chafed and they chafed, until one day Allen finally pushed his nay-saying assistant into the koi pond and shouted, “’The sky’s the limit’? I’ll show you limits!” And on that day he founded Stratolaunch Systems, a company that would create a plane that would help propel a craft beyond the sky, to space!

And those people who still argued that space is part of the sky, depending on your definition? Allen had them frozen in carbonite and turned into coffee tables for his vast mansion. (The assistant eventually crawled out of the koi pond, but he kept his mouth shut after that, because he had already spent a summer encased in carbonite, and didn’t intend to repeat it.)

All of that may be true. But the parts that are certainly true are those directly concerning billionaire Paul Allen’s plan to build a gigantic plane that will carry a space rocket high into the atmosphere (about 6 miles up), where the rocket can more easily launch itself into orbit. And, by “gigantic,” I mean that the plane will have a wingspan of 385 feet, and a total weight of 1.2 million pounds.

This is an interesting thing because, a) a rocket-carrying plane has seemed like a good idea for a while, but has never been tried on this scale; and b) with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, we’re going to be looking for new (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get people and equipment into space. Private companies like Stratolaunch Systems and its partner on this project, SpaceX, will likely be a big part of the solution.

(SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the folks behind paypal. There’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. So Paul Allen’s motivation could also have been that he didn’t want to be the only eccentric billionaire without his own spaceflight company. Which is understandable.)

While this plane/rocket system won’t be able carry quite as much cargo into space as other rockets, the Stratolaunch plane has other advantages. (Together, the plane and the rocket weigh more than one and a half million points, and they’re using repurposed engines from 747 jets, so they think the payload limit should be around 13,500 pounds.) For one, it doesn’t require a complicated and stationary launch pad, meaning that launch costs should be lower, and the process of getting the rocket launched will be more flexible—if weather isn’t cooperating at the launch site, the plane can be flown somewhere else (with a 12,000-foot runway) and sent up there. Also, once a rocket is released, the plane can just turn around, land, and be fitted for another launch by the next day. So, you know, if you have a lot of stuff to get up into space, and not so much time, maybe this is yer bird.

But what’s the point? For that, let’s go back to “interesting thing b).” Aside from every billionaire’s dream of having a spaceship, Allen and co. expect the very costly project to be profitable (eventually). NASA may be done with the shuttle program, but they aren’t done with their work in space—currently astronauts rely on Russian launches to get into space, but contracts with companies like Allen’s could give them some more options.

And, of course, who isn’t interested in space?

The Stratolaunch system could be tossing rockets into space as soon as 2016. It'll start with unmanned rockets, but assuming that those launches prove to be safe and reliable, they hope to move to launching manned spacecraft. (And check out Stratolaunch's site for more on the launch system.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

mdr's picture
mdr says:

I'd tell you who isn't interested in space but I don't want Liza annoyed with me before I get my holiday bonus.

posted on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 6:38pm
tcnaturalist's picture

Wait, we get a Holiday Bonus? I need to speak with my manager.

posted on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 10:25am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Liza's out of town for a couple days. While the cat's away, the mice will talk about space.

posted on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 10:43am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

PS—I never explained the "Spruce Goose" thing in the title. If the reference was lost on you (i.e., you aren't a million years old), the Spruce Goose was the nickname for another ridiculously large airplane built by an eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes.

The Spruce Goose holds the record for the longest wingspan of any aircraft (until Stratolaunch Systems gets their plane up, which will surpass the Goose's 320' span), it was built in 1947, and, because of shortages in other materials during WWII, it was made of freakin' wood. It also only ever made one flight, and so the project was kind of a failure. Hopefully that's where the analogy in this post's title falls apart.

posted on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 10:55am

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0jmvdh.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options