Air cargo goes into orbit

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Paul Allen (who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates) and Burt Rutan (who may be the most inventive aerospace engineer since the Wright brothers) are collaborating again. Their last project, SpaceShipOne, was the first privately-funded, manned rocket ship to fly beyond earth’s atmosphere, but this time they’re going really big.

Mr. Allen’s new company, Stratolaunch Systems, intends to build a mobile launch system capable of delivering a 4.5 tonne payload into low earth orbit. It will have three primary components:

There is plenty of information about the project, and about the aircraft and rocket, on the company’s website (, but briefly: The carrier aircraft will weigh 544 tonnes, and will have a wingspan of 117 m. It will be powered by “six 747 engines,” although the engine manufacturer has not been specified. The multistage booster, which is designed to release at about 30,000 ft, will be derived from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. It will be about 37 m long and weigh up to 222 tonnes.

Stratolaunch Systems has its headquarters in Huntsville, and the plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port, with first flight tentatively scheduled for 2016.

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