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Paul Allen's Stratolaunch Systems moves toward 2017 test launch from KSC

1:00 PM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
The Stratolaunch's carrier aircraft weighs more than 1.2 million pounds and has a wingspan of 385 feet – greater than the length of a football field. Using six 747 engines, the carrier aircraft will be the largest aircraft ever constructed.
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Cape Canaveral, FL (Florida Today) -- A billionaire-backed commercial space venture unveiled with fanfare a year ago has undergone a major change but continues to eye Kennedy Space Center as its eventual base of operations as it moves toward a 2017 test launch.

Stratolaunch Systems, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is developing the world's largest aircraft - boasting a wingspan longer than a football field - to carry rockets that would launch satellites from the sky, and possibly someday people.

The company and SpaceX recently ended their partnership after SpaceX, which was to contribute a smaller version of its Falcon 9 rocket to the project, determined changes to its production lines would be too disruptive.

Stratolaunch is now studying rocket designs with Orbital Sciences Corp., and CEO Gary Wentz said the company is targeting a 2017 test launch from KSC, where a hangar and

"That is our current thinking, yes, that we intend to come there," said Wentz, a University of Central Florida graduate who began his engineering career at KSC before moving to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where Stratolaunch is headquartered.

"We'd like to conduct a demo mission from the Cape, so all the planning that we're doing right now would focus that effort there at Kennedy," he said.

Kennedy's wide, three-mile runway and distance from population centers are good fits for Stratolaunch's early flight operations, though other locations may be considered, Wentz said.

Stratolaunch, which was publicly introduced in December 2011, hopes to provide lower-cost launches by freeing itself from ground-based range infrastructure and weather restrictions and enabling quicker flight turnarounds.

"They have an opportunity to change the paradigm for the launch industry," said Frank DiBello, CEO of Space Florida, the state's aerospace development agency. "If they can put a significant lift capability in place at the price points they're thinking about, they'll have a significant mark on the marketplace."

Wentz has discussed Stratolaunch's future plans and facility needs with DiBello and KSC officials, but any formal commitment is likely still a year or two away.

"It is not firmed up, but it is inherently intuitive and logical, and we're doing everything that we can to keep it that way and to make Florida the launch and operations site of choice," said DiBello.

Those operations would employ just 50 to 100 people, Wentz estimated, "to keep things as lean as we can and keep the cost down."

But DiBello said Stratolaunch presented "multifaceted" opportunities for the Space Coast.

"It's not just the thing that's flying, even though that's impressive in itself," he said. "It's the customers that it brings with it, it's the payloads that need to be supported and processed for launch, it's the launch vehicle itself, it's the facilities associated with support of that vehicle."

In addition to Orbital, of Dulles, Va., the company is partnered with Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., to design the twin-fuselage carrier aircraft weighing over 1.2 million pounds.

The aircraft will be a much larger version of the one Scaled designed with Allen's backing to fly the suborbital SpaceShipOne, the winner in 2004 of the $10 million Ansari X Prize to fly the first privately developed spaceship.

Dynetics, of Huntsville, will provide a mating and integration system and other support.

In Mojave, Stratolaunch is assembling a prototype aircraft wing in a new production facility and has nearly completed construction of a hangar. Test flights of the carrier aircraft are planned there in 2015.

The company bought two 747-400 jets and has fully disassembled one to make use of its engines, landing and nose gear and other components.

The SpaceX partnership broke down after engineers concluded the rocket would need large, tapered fins to provide the necessary lift and control. SpaceX decided that would require unacceptable modifications to its manufacturing processes as it tries to ramp up production of Falcon 9 rocket stages and engines.

Wentz expects to settle on a rocket design with Orbital early next year. He said the change would not limit Stratolaunch's capacity to carry medium-class payloads or significantly change its costs.

Orbital's air-launched Pegasus rocket has launched more than 80 satellites on 41 missions since 1990, but has flown rarely in recent years. It has failed three times.

"Orbital brings a lot of lessons learned from Pegasus that we can leverage and has demonstrated air launch before on a smaller scale, and so we look to use their past experiences to help minimize any impact as a result of the change," said Wentz. "We're making good progress."

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