A massive airplane being built by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen moved a step closer to flight last week, when it crept out of its hangar in Mojave, Calif., and practiced rolling down the runway, hitting a top speed of 46 mph.
Known as Stratolaunch, the plane has a wingspan even greater than that of business mogul Howard Hughes's famed Spruce Goose and is designed to carry as many as three rockets, tethered to its belly, to about 35,000 feet. Once aloft, the rockets would drop, then fire their engines and deliver satellites to orbit.
But Allen has even bigger ambitions for Stratolaunch and is considering pairing it with a new space shuttle that's known inside the company as Black Ice.
In exclusive interviews last summer, Allen and Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch System's chief executive, laid out the company's plans for the giant plane, providing an answer to why anyone would want to build an aircraft that has 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines and a wingspan longer than a football field.
"I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going," Allen said in an interview in his Seattle office.
The Black Ice space plane — should it be built — would be about as big as the former space shuttle developed by NASA and capable of staying up for at least three days. It could be launched from virtually anywhere in the world, as long as the runway could accommodate Stratolaunch's size. And it would be capable of flying to the International Space Station, taking satellites and experiments to orbit, and maybe one day even people — though there are no plans for that in the near-term.
Then it would land back on the runway, ready to fly again.