Allen, Rutan Launch Space Tourism Company

Venture vows to build biggest airplane ever.

Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch

So much for Burt Rutan’s “retirement.” Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen on Tuesday announced he is teaming with the legendary aerospace designer to launch a new space-tourism company called Stratolaunch Systems that plans, among other accomplishments, to design and build “the largest aircraft ever constructed” – which will be used to carry a 490,000-pound rocket to an altitude of about 30,000 feet before an air launch into orbit around the earth.

The billionaire investor has established his new company in Huntsville, Alabama, which will be the base of operations for a space tourism venture with presences in several U.S. states. “I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight,” Allen said in a statement. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space-launch industry.”

The giant carrier aircraft designed to transport the rocket into the air will use six Boeing 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds and a wingspan of more than 380 feet. (In case you're wondering, the Spruce Goose's wingspan is 319 feet.) An illustration shows an airplane with two parallel 747-like fuselages slung together by a massive overhead wing, with a large rocket suspended between them. Plans call for a first flight within five years.

Requiring a runway 12,000 feet long to take off or land, it will operate from a large airport or a spaceport and be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point, according to Allen’s investment company, Vulcan. The rocket will be able to carry both people and payload.

The multistage booster rocket will be manufactured by California-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX and led by PayPal and Tesla founder Elon Musk.

The carrier airplane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California near where Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, built SpaceShipOne, the first civilian rocket to take humans into space, which won Allen and Scaled Composites the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

"Paul and I pioneered private space travel with SpaceShipOne, which led to Virgin Galactic's commercial suborbital SpaceShipTwo Program," Rutan said. "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."

There was no word on what a ride into space aboard the rocket will cost or how long it will remain in orbit before returning to Earth. At a press conference announcing the venture on Tuesday, Allen noted the Russians currently charge $63 million for a roundtrip to space.