Stratolaunch lifts veil on mammoth airplane

Image: Stratolaunch hangar
This view of Stratolaunch Systems’ hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in California shows the massive airplane’s left-side fuselage and scaffolding. (Credit: Vulcan Inc.)

MOJAVE, Calif. – When you walk into the place where Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems is building the world’s biggest airplane, it feels as if you’re stepping into the Starship Enterprise’s construction zone.

“It’s jaw-dropping when you walk into that hangar,” said Chuck Beames, Stratolaunch’s executive director and president of Vulcan Aerospace, during a rare tour last week.

The plane’s wing, taking shape inside a 103,000-square-foot hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port, stands three stories off the ground and measures 385 feet from tip to tip. That’s three times longer than the distance of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in 1903. If the Enterprise is ever built to its “Star Trek” TV dimensions, now or in the 23rd century, the starship would be only a few dozen feet wider.

It doesn’t take long for the numbers – and the view – to boggle the mind. But there’s another side to the Stratolaunch saga: What’s Paul Allen up to? Stratolaunch is designed to serve as a flying platform for sending satellites into orbit, but who will provide the air-launched rockets? What niche will Stratolaunch fill alongside SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and other space companies?

Like the plane, Paul Allen’s vision isn’t quite ready for its full reveal. But five years after its founding, Stratolaunch Systems is providing glimpses behind the veil.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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