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Paul Allen's dramatic spaceship joins Bezos in space-race

Paul Allen and aviation innovator Burt Rutan announce their latest space partnership, called Stratolaunch, from Allen's headquarters in Seattle.
Keith Seinfeld
Paul Allen and aviation innovator Burt Rutan announce their latest space partnership, called Stratolaunch, from Allen's headquarters in Seattle.

Paul Allen is bankrolling a dramatic new space-craft, which aims to launch satellites later this decade, and maybe people, too. The project uses an airplane made from two rebuilt Boeing 747’s. 

It looks a little like a flying catamaran. It will be the largest airplane ever built, with six jet engines. And hanging from the wing in the middle will be a rocket.

This is where Paul Allen’s team, a collaboration of three existing companies, will have to really innovate. The giant plane will fly to 30-thousand feet, and then drop the rocket, which will shoot from there into orbit. 

Allen says he’s been fascinated by spaceships since he was a kid, and he's happy to put millions into it, even though success is uncertain:

“I think its well known that I'm a huge fan of anything that pushes forward the boundaries of what we can do in science and technology, that’s my history, those are my passions. Anything from the Brain Institute, to spaceship one, the radio telescope. Anything that pushes those boundaries and increases our ability to do new things, to me, is an exciting opportunity.”

Allen is part of a new space-race underway, with a handful of private companies trying to replace NASA’s retired shuttle, including one funded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  Even though they’re billionaires in the same town, Allen says there’s no real rivalry between him and Bezos:  

“They haven’t disclosed that much of what they are doing. Our air launch approach is pretty unique. I think his approach, what little I know about it, is entirely different. So I don't feel a rivalry. I think the more the merrier.”

Allen’s putting his wealth behind a design by legendary aviation innovator Burt Rutan. They also teamed up on SpaceShipOne, which was awarded the X-prize in 2004 for being the first private program to send a human into space. Allen’s new company is called Stratolaunch Systems.  

Bezos has a secretive company called Blue Origin working on a space orbiter. And another famous billionaire, Richard Branson of Virgin Airways, has formed Virgin Galactic to focus on space tourism. That company is also licensing Burt Rutan's technology.

Allen’s company is aiming to launch satellites, and earn income from it, sometime later this decade. Stratolaunch is predicting its first test flight will come in 2016.

Historically, about a third of new rockets fail during test launches, according to Mike Griffin, former chief of NASA and a board-member of Stratolaunch.

For more technical details, see this earlier story.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.