According to Reuters, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is building the biggest airplane to compete with other space exploration companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galatic. Stratolaunch Systems, a division of Allen's company Vulcan Aerospace, is 70% complete building the world's biggest aircraft ever.
"The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft," as its called, has a wingspan of 385 feet, handily beating out which Howard Hughes' 1947 H-4 Hercules, also known as the “Spruce Goose,” and the Antonov An-225, a Soviet cargo plane that was used to transport the Buran space shuttle. The Antonov An-225 is currently the world’s largest aircraft with a wingspan of 290 ft). The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft is a twin-fuselage plane, 238 feet long, powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines. The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft is designed to be able to carry a combined rocket and payload weight of up to payload 550,000 pounds (250 tons), which is what a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can carry from a launch from the ground.
The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft will be used primarily to launch satellites while in-flight and perform other airborne experiments. The right fuselage will contain the flight crew and the left fuselage will contain the flight data systems. Allen's plans to use the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft for launching low-orbit satellites that will offer a range of different services from earth imagery to internet access.
According to Chuck Beames, who is in charge of handling Allen's extraterrestrial ventures, the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft has a unique advantage over its space flight competitors. The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft will not be hindered by frequent weather issues or other unforeseen delays like those that SpaceX or Virgin Galatic experience. Beames indicates that the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft can take off from any airport (equipped to handle it), launch and position satellites quicker.
"Just like computing devices are rapidly changing what they can do and our way of life, access to space is changing the way we live."
Beames believes that the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft will be ahead of its competitors and while space flight is not in Allen's immediate business plans, that stance may change in the future. The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft is 76% complete; only the six engines, landing gear, and one of the tail sections remain unfinished. The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft should be completed by the end of 2016. Commercial satellite services are expected to begin by 2020.