Paul Allen Wants to Launch Reusable Space Shuttles With the World's Largest Airplane
The Stratolaunch was designed with the intent of "normalizing access to low Earth orbit," but despite having six Boeing 747 engines, it still hasn't made it off the ground. After completing some runway tests, the aircraft (which boasts the largest wingspan of any plane on Earth, 385 feet) seems on track to become operation by the end of the decade. So what exactly will it be carrying into orbit?
Right now, Stratolaunch has a deal with Orbital ATK to help launch their Pegasus XL rockets, but the giant aircraft has the capacity to launch payloads several times larger than that. According to The Washington Post, the founder of Stratolaunch, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, has plans for a new, reusable space plane codenamed "Black Ice."
Allen envisions the Black Ice and Stratolaunch aircraft working together to revolutionize access to space: in Allen's words, "I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going."
The Black Ice craft would apparently be of similar wingspan to the classic Space Shuttle and would use the Stratolaunch as a replacement for a conventional rocket launch. Two potential uses for the new shuttle would be traveling to the ISS and ferrying satellites into orbit. Unlike SpaceX or Virgin Galactic, there aren't any plans to start flying human passengers into space.
As exciting as it sounds, there's no set date for the Black Ice craft's completion—Allen still needs to make sure that the Stratolaunch makes it into the air and performs well enough to actually serve its purpose before he moves on to the next incredibly ambitious stage of his master plan. In the meantime, you can learn more about the Stratolaunch here and check out some photos of its first rollout here.