Sky brute meant to launch rockets takes off

The world's largest aircraft took off over the Mojave Desert in California - the first flight for the carbon-composite plane built by Stratolaunch Systems, started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as the company enters the potentially lucrative private space market.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Monday, April 15, 2019

The world's largest aircraft took off over the Mojave Desert in California - the first flight for the carbon-composite plane built by Stratolaunch Systems, started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as the company enters the potentially lucrative private space market.

The white airplane called Roc, which has a wingspan the length of an American football field and is powered by six engines on a twin fuselage, stayed aloft for more than two hours before landing safely back at the Mojave Air and Space Port as hundreds of people cheered.

"What a fantastic first flight," Stratolaunch chief Jean Floyd said. "Today's flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems."

The plane is designed to drop rockets and other space vehicles weighing up to 225,000 kilograms at an altitude of 35,000 feet and has been billed by the company as making satellite deployment as "easy as booking an airline flight."

It is supposed to provide a more flexible way to deploy satellites than vertical takeoff rockets because this way all you need is a long runway for takeoff. It was built by an engineering company called Scaled Composites.

Saturday's flight, which saw the plane reach a maximum speed of nearly 305 kilometers an hour and altitudes of 17,000 feet, was meant to test its performance and handling qualities.

Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, announced in 2011 that he had formed the privately funded Stratolaunch.

The company seeks to cash in on higher demand in coming years for vessels that can put satellites in orbit, competing with other space entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and United Launch Alliance - a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Stratolaunch has said that it intends to launch its first rockets from the Roc next year at the earliest.

Allen died in October 2018, just months after the plane's development was unveiled.

"We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today's historic achievement," said Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan Inc and trustee of the Paul G Allen Trust.

"The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved."