Billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has turned his attention and money to an endeavor that has eluded corporate and government rocket scientists for decades: launching satellites into space from and ascending aircraft. Allen plans to inject $200 million of his own money for the project, which he hopes will usher in “the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry.” as stated to BusinessWeek.
Currently, satellites are hurled into space through conventional rockets that launch from a ground pad. Instead of ground launches, Allen envisions satellites and eventually human space vehicles launched from an airborne “mother ship” created from older Boeing technology and the latest cutting edge booster designs. The aircraft would be comprised of twin fuselages and feature six Boeing 747 engines. A rocket would rest underneath between the fuselages, launching after a sharp climb that would commence once 30,000 feet had been reached.
Costs to launch satellites into orbit from a ground launch pad currently run between $30 million and $200 million. If successful, Allen’s plan to utilize recycled Boeing airplane technology could result in significant savings for aerospace companies and the government. Additionally, ground launches are subject to weather fluctuations and rely upon optimal times and location to reach specific orbits—virtual non-factors in air launches.
Can Allen’s plan work? Time will tell. Scientists have been working on the principles of air launches into space for 20 years or more. To help him succeed where others have failed, Allen has enlisted the help of credible and influential partners, including former senior NASA official Gary Wentz and esteemed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, who originally conceived the current aircraft design.