Tackling the Space Challenge
June 20, 2016
I was only in second grade when the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The night of his launch – April 12, 1961 – I went out onto the front porch and stared up at the stars, trying to see his capsule passing overhead. Like millions of others, I was enthralled by the idea of space exploration, and have been ever since. But I would never have imagined that, more than 50 years later, access to low Earth orbit (LEO) would still be costly, complex and difficult. I am determined to change this to help maximize the potential of space to improve life here on Earth. Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the Web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to LEO holds similar revolutionary potential.
Opening up access to LEO will deliver many benefits. For example, we could deploy more satellites that would enable better understanding of why our weather patterns are changing and help increase agricultural productivity. And, we could study atmospheric chemistry more closely to better study and mitigate climate change. But none of this will happen as quickly without exploring new, flexible and streamlined ways to send satellites into orbit.
My quest to expand access to space began more than a decade ago, when I teamed up with Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipOne. This innovative air-launched vehicle was the world’s first private spacecraft to carry an astronaut into sub-orbital space. We accomplished this feat three times, ultimately winning the Ansari X Prize.
Today, my team at Stratolaunch Systems is building on the concept of a reusable air-launch platform that will put satellites into orbit. Our Stratolaunch carrier aircraft – currently nearing completion in Mojave, California – will take off from a runway and fly to the approximate cruising altitude of a commercial airliner before releasing a satellite-bearing launch vehicle. As the launch vehicle rockets into orbit, Stratolaunch will fly back to a runway landing for reloading, refueling and reuse.
Stratolaunch will be the first air-launch platform of this scale and will rank among the largest aircraft in history – its wingspan alone will stretch the length of a football field. Built primarily of strong yet light carbon fiber and powered by six 747 engines, Stratolaunch will be able to carry up to 550,000 pounds of payload and offer its customers a consistent, flexible and viable alternative to traditional ground-launched rockets.
What advantages does this air-launch approach offer? First, with aircraft-like operations, our reusable launch platform will significantly reduce the long wait times traditionally experienced between the construction of a satellite and the opportunity to launch it into space.
Second, because Stratolaunch is designed with a flight radius of up to 1000 nautical miles and can launch from different runways, it will offer scientists, businesses and space entrepreneurs much greater flexibility, such as the potential to evade local weather problems that often impose untimely delays on traditional vertical rocket launches.
Third, with shorter wait times, greater flexibility and more missions per year, we will be able to lower costs and increase opportunities to put small satellites into LEO. And when such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine. That’s the thing about new platforms: when they become easily available, convenient and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts. And in a world filled with great challenges and opportunities, we should be making this transformation prospect easier.
As always, space remains an unforgiving frontier, and the skies overhead will surely present obstacles and setbacks that must be overcome. But hard challenges demand fresh approaches, and I’m optimistic that Stratolaunch will yield transformative benefits – not only for scientists and space entrepreneurs, but for all of us.
Look for those hangar doors in Mojave to open soon.