The world’s biggest plane, designed to carry spaceships, was innocuously rolled out of a hanger for the first time in the Mojave Desert today. Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, unveiled the Stratolaunch, which was built by his company Stratolaunch Systems. It has a wingspan of 117 metres (385 feet) (about one-and-a-quarter times the height of the statue of liberty), weighs 226,796 kgs (500,000 pounds), and is propelled by six 747 aircraft engines.
The plane’s eventual goal is to carry spacecraft to low earth orbit in order to decrease the energy required for them to get to space. Leaving the hanger marks the end of the construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase. All supporting Allen’s eventual aim to provide convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. The company will stage its first demonstration in 2019, and already has its first client — private spaceflight company Orbital ATK which plans to use the plane to launch its Pegasus XL rocket.
Paul Allen’s venture is one of many undertaken by some of the world’s biggest companies to make space commercial, all of which are making rapid headway. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s astral brainchild, says that they can make space access 100 times cheaper, and will make history by relaunching their Dragon capsule today; Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s company that hopes to take tourists into space, said that they will be able to do so starting next year; and Rocket Lab, who claim that they can launch small satellites into space for $4.9 million per flight, successfully launched their first rocket into space on May 24th.
Private companies are competing to make space more affordable for both commercial and leisurely ends. We are about to enter an age where the final frontier is not just accessible to astronauts trained for years, but to any citizen — providing we have the extra funds to spare. While its still not cheap, commercial spaceflight is moving in the right direction.