As AC/DC once sang, “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n’ roll.” Replace “rock ‘n'” with “rocket,” and you’ll get a sense of the challenge long facing engineers and scientists: how to most efficiently move rockets the huge distance from the Earth’s surface into the stratosphere. The question has become even more pressing as commercial space travel and permanent human colonies in outer space move out of the realm of science fiction and become an inevitability. Entrepreneur and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunchrepresents the next step in that journey: it’s a massive aircraft designed to make launching rockets into space easier and more practical.
Set Your Sights High
Allen has spent the last six years developing the Stratolaunch in pursuit of making low Earth orbit—the “first step” into outer space and where the bulk of space research has occurred—more accessible and routine. In the early-2000s, he joined Scaled Composites (the company owned by retired aerospace Engineer Burt Rutan) to build SpaceShipOne, a reusable space plane designed to carry three humans (including a pilot) into the Earth’s atmosphere. In June 2004, the aircraft made its maiden voyage as the first privately funded spaceflight. Its success won its creators the 2004 Ansari X Prize, including a sum of $10 million dollars.
Encouraged by the project’s success, Allen soon set his sights on something much bigger. The jaw-dropping Stratolaunch has six 747 aircraft engines, weighs in at 500,000 pounds dry (and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds), and travels over the ground using 28 wheels. Perhaps the most visually impressive is the aircraft’s 385-foot wingspan—by comparison, a National Football League field measures 360 feet. The Stratolaunch’s massive size adds to its functionality, since it will eventually be able to carry three rockets to a takeoff point 30,000 feet into the sky. While this feat may sound incredible to industry outsiders, the Stratolaunch has already brought in one customer—Orbital ATK has commissioned it to launch its Pegasus XL rocket to send satellites into orbit.
From Fireworks to Space Shuttles
Most people think of rockets as a modern day technology, but their history dates back centuries. The first recorded rockets were made in China in the 1200s, where they were initially used for fireworks, and later warfare. As technology advanced over the next three-quarters of a millennium, rockets were made to be bigger and more effective. By the early 1900s, liquid-fuel rockets were being developed in Russia, Germany, and the United States—and were eventually used by the German army to bomb other countries in World War II. Thankfully, the 20th century also saw the development of rockets for progress rather than destruction: during the height of the “space race” in the 1960s, NASA sent astronauts such as John Glenn and Alan Shepard into space using rocket technology and in 1969, United States astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history when they landed on the moon in a Saturn V rocket.
In the 21st century, rocket technology is becoming more complex (and built on on larger scales) than ever before as scientists and researchers explore how humans might one day establish colonies in space. Even by these modern standards, Allen’s Stratolaunch is impressive. Now that is has been rolled out, the team will spend the next few years on testing at Mojave Air and Space Port, building towards an anticipated first launchin 2019.