The enormous airplane that you see above is actually being built—this is not a concept, or a Howard Hughes-esque quest to build a huge airplane for the sake of building a huge airplane. It is a carrier aircraft, designed to carry a rocket into the stratosphere, from where it can be more easily launched into space.
The carrier aircraft, which weighs in at 544 tons and has a 385-foot wingspan, uses six 747 engines to carry its 490,000-pound payload, a Falcon IV-derived rocket. The rocket itself can carry up to 13,500 pounds of cargo into orbit. The project is a team effort involving Burt Ratan and Paul Allen. SpaceX is supplying the rocket launchers and rockets.
What’s the point? There are two significant benefits to launching rockets from the stratosphere instead of from the ground. First, it saves a lot of fuel. Rockets spend an enormous amount of very expensive fuel producing a tremendous amount of thrust—which is necessary when you want to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. In getting from the ground to the stratosphere, however, jet engines are a lot more efficient. The second benefit: rocket launches will not be so constrained by weather.
Stratolaunch Systems’ CEO Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer of science and mission systems at NASA, said he believes the carrier aircraft will “revolutionize space travel.”
The project is nearing the building phase. Stratolaunch hopes that it will be ready for testing in 2015 and in use by 2016. If the launch system proves successful, the aircraft will begin carrying cargo into space and may eventually carry human crews of up to six members.