The space shuttle program may have retired, but space transport may be in for a resurgence.
Thanks to some forward-thinking, a project is now in the works that would use a plane to launch booster rockets with cargo (and, eventually, people) into low earth orbit.
But not just any plane - it would be the world's largest aircraft ever, one with a wingspan of 385 feet (a whopping 120 feet wider than the Airbus 380).
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, has teamed up with aerospace engineer Burt Ratan and Elon Musk, of SpaceX, to create Stratolaunch Systems. "By the end of this decade, Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit," Allen said on Tuesday.
The plane will be designed by Scaled Composites, a company founded by Rutan. It will weigh 1.2 million lbs. (including the weight of the 490,000-lb. booster rocket, which SpaceX is designing). The extra-large aircraft will need an extra-large runway - 12,000 feet long, to be exact.
“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who now sits on the board of Stratolaunch. The company says its technology will provide orbital access more safely, cheaply and with greater flexibility than has been possible in the past.
Stratolaunch expects to begin launching commercial and government payloads into orbit within five years, with the ability to transport people into orbit following once the technology's safety is determined.
See the company's animated demonstration of the rocket launcher in action: