Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Emerges from Hangar for Fueling Tests

The goal of the massive aircraft is to offer better and cheaper access to low Earth orbit.

Stratolaunch
Paul Allen's Stratolaunch aircraft was rolled out of its hangar this week, putting it on schedule for its first test flight in 2019.Stratolaunch

Google's Sergey Brin isn't the only billionaire taking up a lot of hangar space with an ambitious and massive aircraft construction project. For years, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has desired to make access to space more convenient and affordable, and from that the idea for Stratolaunch was born. On Wednesday, the world got its first look at the massive, 250-ton aircraft designed by Burt Rutan after it was rolled out of its hangar in Mojave, California, to begin fuel testing.

Originally intended to make its debut by the end of 2016, the Stratolaunch aircraft was finally freed of its three-story construction scaffolding in recent weeks, allowing it to successfully rest on its 28 wheels for the first time. Stratolaunch Systems Corporation CEO Jean Floyd admitted that the aircraft's 500,000-pound weight "may sound heavy," but its wingspan (385 feet) is longer than a football field and the aircraft measures 238 feet from nose to tail. It is powered by six used jet engines, taken along with avionics and other elements from two Boeing 747-400s.

The goal for "The Roc," which earned its nickname from an enormous mythical bird of prey known for carrying large animals in its claws, is to air launch partner company Orbital ATK's Pegasus XL rocket, which will contain small satellites. The rocket will be carried between the two fuselages and then released at 35,000-feet for satellite delivery. The Roc will take off with payloads as heavy as 550,000 lbs., for a combined total weight of 1.3 million lbs., including 250,000 lbs. of fuel.

Still, it’ll be some time before the Roc ever soars.

“Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be actively conducting ground and flightline testing at the Mojave Air and Space Port,” Floyd said. “This is a first-of-its-kind aircraft, so we’re going to be diligent throughout testing and continue to prioritize the safety of our pilots, crew and staff. Stratolaunch is on track to perform its first launch demonstration as early as 2019.”

Of course, the size, scope and delays of this endeavor will raise eyebrows, because Elon Musk's SpaceX — which briefly partnered with Stratolaunch until the companies split in 2012 over "different ambitions" — has already proven that space access (and possibly travel) can be cheaper through reusable rockets. But Allen still believes that the "airport-style operations" of air launching rockets is better for keeping costs low and possibilities high.

Stratolaunch
The Stratolaunch aircraft, known as "The Roc," will now undergo months of ground and flightline testing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
The massive aircraft has a wingspan of 385 feet. For comparison, an NFL field is 360 feet long.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
The Stratolaunch aircraft was constructed inside its hangar by Scaled Composites.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
The aircraft is powered by six used jet engines, taken from two Boeing 747-400s to keep costs lower.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
The goal for Stratolaunch is to air launch a rocket, which will be carried in the space between the aircraft's two fuselages.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
The Roc will be operated by a pilot, co-pilot and fight engineer from the starboard fuselage.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
The aircraft's first test was resting on its 28 wheels after being freed from the three-story construction scaffolding.Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch
Stratolaunch plans to conduct its first test flight at some point in 2019.Stratolaunch