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World's Biggest Aircraft Will Ferry Passengers to Space in Stratolaunch Vision

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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced Tuesday his plan to create a company that will bring “airport-like operations” to private spaceflight --thanks to the world's biggest aircraft.

The business magnate is teaming up with Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer that developed the original SpaceShipOne -- the first privately funded, manned rocket ship to fly beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Looking to build on that success, Stratolaunch Systems promises to bring greater safety, cost-effectiveness, and flexibility to space travel.

"For the first time since John Glenn, America can not fly its own astronauts into space," Allen said, noting the recent final flight by the space shuttle and the elimination of the Constellation program, which would have built a successor craft. "By the end of this decade, Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit."

"We will keep America at the forefront of space exploration," he said.

The new space system will be focused on carrying commercial and government cargo into space, but Rutan and Allen hope it will eventually carry human cargo as well. The company's motto: Any orbit, any time.

"I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne -- to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system," Allen said. "We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

The idea between Stratolaunch's "mobile-launch" system isn't new. In fact, it's similar to the one used for Rutan's earlier craft SpaceShipOne, which requires a "mothership" to carry it into the air before it is released for air-launch.

This time around, Stratolaunch Systems will be using a custom carrier aircraft developed by Scaled Composites, Rutan's aerospace engineering company. Powered by six 747 engines, it will be the largest aircraft ever flown, weighing more than 1.2 million pounds with a wingspan of 380 ft. -- longer than a football field. 

The carrier aircraft will operate from a large airport/spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and it will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. The plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar that will soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said board member Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

The biggest advantages of the air-launch-to-orbit system will be Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches. This means lower costs and more potential flights.

The first test flight is planned for the beginning of 2016.

Allen and Rutan first collaborated together on SpaceShipOne, a suborital air-launched spaceplane.

SpaceShipOne made history in 2004 when it successfully reached space and pilot Mike Melville became the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the Earth's atmosphere. Four months later, SpaceShipOne became the first private manned spacecraft to exceed 328,000 feet twice in 14 days, earning it the prestigious $10 million Ansari X-Prize, created in 1996 to kick-start the development of privately built rocket ships.

"This is the true frontier of transportation," Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration said at the time. "It feels a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have."