The twin-fuselage Stratolaunch airplane, with the longest wingspan in the world, is designed to carry as many as three rockets up to altitude and then drop them so they can launch satellites to space from there. But Paul Allen, founder of Stratolaunch Systems (as well as co-founder of Microsoft) recently that he wants the enormous plane to eventually carry a space shuttle as well, making the launch system fully reusable.
The space plane, known internally at Stratolaunch as Black Ice, is a project that's still on the drawing board. The aerospace startup still needs to fly its six-engine monster plane for the first time before it considers building another craft, and the company has yet to demonstrate the mid-flight rocket launching capability. Stratolaunch recently rolled down the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port in a taxi test, hitting a top speed of 46 mph.
“I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going,” Allen the Washington Post's Christian Davenport during interviews last summer for the upcoming book, .
If Stratolaunch Systems were to build a space shuttle to launch with its mothership, it would be about the same size as NASA's space shuttle that retired in 2011. As long as a runway could accommodate the enormous plane, the Black Ice shuttle could launch from anywhere in the world. It would then return to land after orbiting for about three days, making the entire system reusable.
“You make your rocket a plane,” Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch Systems CEO, told the Post.
Paul Allen said the space shuttle could be used to launch constellations of satellites, and eventually, it could even be upgraded to carry human crews, though there are no plans for that at this point. For now, Stratolaunch needs to get its giant plane in the air. The aircraft's maiden flight is expected late this year or next year, and down the line Stratolaunch is planning to use Pegasus XL rockets built by Orbital ATK, relatively small rockets, for the first launches to orbit.
But Stratolaunch is capable of carrying a lot more than three small rockets. Perhaps its ultimate cargo will be a new space plane, Black Ice, capable of flying from about 35,000 feet up to orbit and then returning to Earth to land.