Microsoft’s Paul Allen to take NASA’s lead and revolutionise space tech

14 Dec 2011

Image depicting what the Stratolaunch airplane will look like. Image by Stratolaunch Systems

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is determined to pioneer the next generation of space travel. Teaming up with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, and drawing on NASA’s expertise, Allen says he’s prepared to pledge US$200m or more to build the world’s largest airplane as a mobile platform for launching satellites more cost effectively, with the scope to eventually launch people into low Earth orbit.

Space tech appears to be high on tech entrepreneurs’ and investors’ agendas at the minute. Earlier this week, for instance, we heard about NASA granting Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX company permission to fly a commercial space flight to the International Space Station early next year. And prolific tech investor Esther Dyson, who incidentally is speaking at Dublin’s Science Gallery tonight, is also tuning in hugely into space tech, bringing aerospace start-up companies under her angel-investing wing.

Dawn of ‘radical’ space-tech change

So what is Allen up to?

Via his new venture Stratolaunch Systems, Allen announced yesterday at a press conference in Seattle that he is teaming up with Rutan to take space tech to the next level, following NASA’s final space shuttle flight.

Just months after the last NASA shuttle flight closed an important chapter in spaceflight, Allen said he is stepping up the US’ drive to cross space frontiers.

Allen and Rutan have pooled their resources before: their SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded, manned rocket ship to fly beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Now their plan is to develop a revolutionary approach to space transportation: an air-launch system to provide orbital access to space.

“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 yesterday. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionise space travel.”

Allen’s new company will build a mobile launch system with three primary components:

  • A carrier aircraft, developed by Scaled Composites, the aircraft manufacturer and assembler founded by Rutan. It will be the largest aircraft ever flown, claim Allen and Rutan.
  • A multi-stage booster, manufactured by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies.
  • A leading-edge mating and integration system allowing the carrier aircraft to safely carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds. It will be built by aerospace engineering company Dynetics.

Allen said Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions.

He is aiming for a first flight within five years.

He said the ‘air-launch-to-orbit system’ will signal lower costs, greater safety, and more flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems.

And the ultimate aim? To enable new orbital missions, as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.

The Stratolaunch system will eventually have the capability of launching people into low Earth orbit, indicated Allen.

Rutan, who has joined Stratolaunch Systems as a board member, said he was thrilled to be back working with the Microsoft co-founder.

Speaking yesterday, Rutan said: “Paul and I pioneered private space travel with SpaceShipOne, which led to Virgin Galactic’s commercial suborbital SpaceShipTwo Program. Now, we will have the opportunity to extend that capability to orbit and beyond. Paul has proven himself a visionary with the will, commitment and courage to continue pushing the boundaries of space technology. We are well aware of the challenges ahead, but we have put together an incredible research team that will draw inspiration from Paul’s vision.”

To lead the Stratolaunch Systems team, Allen picked Gary Wentz, a veteran NASA official. Wentz will now act as CEO and president of Stratolaunch Systems. A former chief engineer at NASA, he echoed Allen’s words, saying the system’s design will “revolutionise” space travel.

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, also a Stratolaunch board member, joined Allen and Rutan yesterday.

“We believe this technology has the potential to some day make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground-launched rockets,” Griffin said. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

The company is taking a building block approach in the development of the launch aircraft and booster, with initial efforts focused on unmanned payloads. Human flights will follow, after safety, reliability and operability are demonstrated, said Allen yesterday.

The carrier aircraft will operate from a large airport/spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point.

  • It will use six 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2m pounds and a wingspan of more than 91.4 metres.
  • For takeoff and landing, it will require a runway 3,657 metres long.
  • Systems on board the launch aircraft will conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor the health of the orbital payload.

The plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar, which will soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s Mojave Desert.

It will be located close to where Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne, which won Allen and Scaled Composites the US$10m Ansari X Prize in 2004 after three successful sub-orbital flights.

The multi-stage booster will be manufactured by California-based SpaceX, pioneered by the aforementioned Musk.

Stratolaunch Systems’ corporate headquarters is located in Huntsville, Alabama. Yesterday’s announcement was the first public word that Allen and Rutan were back in the space business. But space has long been on Allen’s mind. In the close of his memoir, Idea Man, published earlier this year, he hinted at his plans, writing that he was “considering a new initiative with that magical contraption I never wearied of sketching as a boy: the rocket ship.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic