An invention of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, “Stratolaunch” the world’s largest aircraft took off over the Mojave Desert in California on Saturday. Built by Stratolaunch Systems Corp, an American space transportation venture.
The white airplane called Roc, has a record-breaking 385-foot wingspan, the length of an American football field and is powered by six engines on a twin fuselage, took to the air for the very first time shortly before 7 am Pacific time and stayed aloft for more than two hours before landing safely back at the Mojave Air and Space Port as a crowd of hundreds of people cheered.
The plane reaches a maximum speed of 189 miles per hour and altitudes of 17,000 feet, this was meant to test its performance and handling qualities, according to Stratolaunch.
The aircraft, from the company Stratolaunch, has been eight years in the making, and was designed to drop rockets and other space vehicles weighing up to 500,000 pounds at an altitude of 35,000 feet and has been billed by the company as making satellite deployment as “easy as booking an airline flight.”
“What a fantastic first flight,” Stratolaunch Chief Executive Officer Jean Floyd said in a statement posted to the company’s website. “All of you have been very patient and very tolerant over the years waiting for us to get this big bird off the ground, and we finally did it, today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems.
We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today’s flight crew, our partners at Northrup Grumman’s Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.”, Floyd added. “The systems on the airplane ran like a watch,” test pilot Evan Thomas told reporters.
According to Wired, the airplane’s six Pratt & Whitney engines and 28-wheel landing gear were originally designed for Boeing 747s. In fact, the aerospace company Scaled Composites, which worked with Stratolaunch to build the aircraft, saved money by repurposing three 747s to put it together.
The aircraft fills almost every corner of its approximately 100,000-square-foot hangar in the Mojave Air and Space Port. Its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. It’s also worth noting that while the plane is the largest in terms of wingspan, other planes exceed it in length.
Stratolaunch’s ambitions have shifted in the past years.
It originally intended to carry modified SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets into space, but the two companies soon parted ways. By 2016, it had found a new partner, Northrop Grumman-owned Orbital ATK, which builds the Pegasus XL rocket. Stratolaunch once hoped to build its own rocket ship and rocket engines, but it discontinued that project and laid off some workers earlier this year.
The Stratolaunch project faces outside pressure, too. Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company seeks to run its own test of a modified Boeing 747 later this year an airplane also built to carry satellite-bearing rockets into orbit.
And at the back of all these ambitious engineers’ and aviation experts’ minds, too, is the spectre of the Spruce Goose. The airplane, a marvel when completed in 1947 as a pet project of the eccentric business magnate Howard Hughes, flew just a single one-mile flight before retiring to an Oregon museum where Allen reportedly visited it.
Though representatives for Allen’s holding company have said that the billionaire set aside funding for Stratolaunch before his death, the venture’s future is not entirely clear. A company spokesperson could not immediately say when Stratolaunch planned to complete additional flights, and the aircraft will need certification from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can begin to carry rockets and satellites into space.
The company seeks to cash in on higher demand in coming years for vessels that can put satellites in orbit, competing in the United States with other space entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Stratolaunch has said that it intends to launch its first rockets from the Roc in 2020 at the earliest. Allen died in October 2018 while suffering from non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, just months after the plane’s development was unveiled.
“We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” said Jody Allen, Chair of Vulcan Inc and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust. “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”