One of the great challenges of space exploration is that it is just so costly. NASA now reports that it is planning only 1 or 2 missions for next year. A large part of the cost is literally in getting the rocket off the ground.
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and funder of Stratolaunch, has announced plans that can cut the cost of launching rockets. Stratolaunch is to be the world’s largest aircraft, specifically builtfor the purpose of air-launching spacecraft into outer space. The plane will have two parallel fuselages with a payload-carrying rocket mounted in-between.
This plane will be heavy, weighing in at 1.2 million pounds, so it will need the power of 6 Boeing 747 engines to achieve speeds necessary to take off. Lift is generated with a wingspan of over 385 feet, longer than the length of a football field. It will also require a seriously long runway at 12,000 feet. To put that in perspective, Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson airport, the world’s busiest, has a runway that would be just short of that.
The rocket-powered spacecraft that will be launched from the Stratolaunch will be developed by SpaceX. SpaceX was the first company to launch a privately-built spaceship into orbit in December 2010. The 490,000 pound rocket will initially carry unmanned payload into space, with plans to eventually stage manned flights.
This type of launching system will provide more scheduling flexibility as weather will factor less into launch safety. That’s because operators can more don’t have to wait for a window of perfect weather. Costs will be reduced significantly because this system does not require a dedicated launch facility. And because of the simpler logistics, preparation time between launches will be less. This means more launches are possible over a given time, and therefore more payload can be transported, all at a lower cost.
Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator, who is now on the board of directors at Stratolaunch emphasizes that the new technology can mean a bright future for the space program.
“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets”
First test flights are scheduled for 2015, with launches occurring about one year later.