Landing on My Feet: My Story

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A new story by Lydia Davis. Can the pilot bring his terrified passengers safely down to earth?

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One problem with ground-based rockets is that they can take off from only a small number of facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Air Force Base, where competition for launch time creates long delays. A plane-based launch would create new possibilities. But a plane that big had other challenges. That wing had to be strong too. In addition to two fuselages and tons of fuel, it would be carrying a set of jet engines and that massive vehicle.

Rutan planned to build the plane from nonmetal composites, rather than aluminum, to keep the weight down, but making the composite strong enough presented another problem. Rutan solved this dilemma in part with a process called pultrusion, in which a machine pulls a material at a constant rate and then bakes it until it hardens, a way to mold huge segments of the plane with a consistent strength.

This technique let the engineers manufacture the very long spars that fortify the giant wing. Rutan began working on a design, even as he realized that the odds were against it ever being built. Using traditional construction methods and materials, the price tag might stretch past a billion, perhaps even reaching the cost of a nuclear aircraft carrier. He figured he could build it more cheaply, especially if he took his scavenger mentality to the limit. Over the next 20 years, Rutan worked with three prospective customers as he continued designing what he referred to as the Big Airplane.

When I first talked to Allen, he was vague about why he decided to fund Stratolaunch. The terrain was becoming irresistible, and he figured this was his opportunity. Let Richard Branson offer suborbital thrill rides to civilians. Let Elon Musk go to Mars. Allen suspected there was another business proposition. The cost of building satellites was dropping as computers, cameras, and sensors became cheaper and more powerful. Their uses were growing too. They could be used to detect illegal ocean fishing—another Allen-funded project—or monitor humanitarian crises.

If there were a reliable and thrifty way to launch satellites , people might come up with more uses, creating an even bigger market. Allen thought air launches could hasten that process. They are not as sensitive to weather as those held at traditional vertical launch facilities, allowing for more flexible takeoffs. They could also be more affordable, as the airplane can be reused many times. But no one had ever built an air-launch system capable of heaving super-heavy payloads into orbit. Allen incorporated the Stratolaunch company and set about building the huge hangar for the plane in Mojave, next to Scaled Composites.

Allen was still queasy about putting lives in peril, but this time he had a rationale. Even so, he admits that it takes fortitude to send any human into the great void. He had situated the cockpit toward the tail, attached to a massive foil connecting the dual fuselages.

The team worked to speed up construction by using off-the-shelf parts whenever possible, the most conspicuous example being the repurposing of three s. But the surface of the plane had to be created from scratch. The most massive pieces were foot spars that give the wing its resiliency, each one weighing 18, pounds. The team first constructed the wing out of the gargantuan spars and built the rest of the plane around it.

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It has to meet codes for sprinklers and electrical power. While the plane was taking shape, Stratolaunch was struggling to find rockets to launch. Orbital is also owned by Northrop Grumman. But the choice of rocket was anticlimactic. More than 40 Pegasus rockets have already launched from the air, usually from a converted Lockheed L Tristar, a commercial airliner that is almost completely retired.

It calls into question the whole Stratolaunch enterprise. For Stratolaunch to fulfill its promise, Allen realized, he would have to build his own rockets. In , Stratolaunch began that process. Sharing their road map publicly for the first time, Thornburg and Floyd laid out their plans for Stratolaunch: Its first custom rocket ship will be considerably bigger than the Pegasus, able to transport multiple satellites or other payloads. This medium-size rocket is nicknamed Kraken, after the legendary Icelandic sea monster.

Floyd estimates that Kraken will be operational in The next steps are more ambitious. In a project codenamed Black Ice, Stratolaunch is designing reusable space planes that will take off from the big airplane and go into orbit. The first one will be programmed to open its bay doors once in orbit and release its payload, perhaps even a fleet of satellites, into space.

And then it will return to Earth. The idea is not all that different from the original space shuttle, which was a reusable vehicle that could also steer itself down from orbit to land on a runway.

The companies have deals with NASA and commercial customers worth billions of dollars. Traditional defense contractors are also developing their own orbital rockets. And a new generation of people are thinking up new approaches to space. Investors include Airbus Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.

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Stratolaunch is not commenting on whether it has any customers signed up. Floyd suggests the business part of Stratolaunch is a work in progress. Rutan keeps models of many of his aircraft, including the Boomerang , pictured with his role model: Elvis Presley. Flying the thing might be less of an issue than landing it. Virtually, at least. We are sitting in the cockpit of the Stratolaunch simulator, a few hundred feet away from the real thing in its giant hangar.

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Guarente, known to everyone as Duff a test pilot thing, I guess , is instructing me on how to use the standard controls—throttle, pedals, yoke—to taxi down the long Mojave runway. Even before we take off, I can see why Rutan thought of putting the cockpit in a tail section.

Finally, after our speed mounts on a very long taxi, I pull back the yoke and we slowly ascend. Ahead of us is a mountain range, maybe 5, feet high. Duff instructs me to make some turns and see how the plane responds.

The first flight is supposed to happen soon. Maybe September. Maybe a bit later. Next year they will see how the plane flies with a Pegasus attached. Stratolaunch will remain based at its Mojave hangar while its engineers prepare it for more tests.

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As early as , the Stratolaunch crew will release the rocket from its hitch 35, feet over the Pacific Ocean. The rocket will ignite its boosters and begin a two-minute ascent into space. Which is getting vehicles in orbit. It certainly was for Burt Rutan. This article appears in the September issue.

Subscribe now. Related Stories. Welcome to Spaceport America. Your Rocket Will Depart Soon. Michael Hainey. Rhett Allain. Eric Adams. Lauren Smiley. Daniel Oberhaus. Lily Hay Newman. But have you seen this thing? Then Allen decided to get back in the space business.

Landing on My Feet: My Story
Landing on My Feet: My Story
Landing on My Feet: My Story
Landing on My Feet: My Story
Landing on My Feet: My Story

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