On Saturday, the world's largest aircraft, the Stratolaunch, made its first complete test flight.
The aircraft was created by the Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, which was founded by the late Paul Allen. The purpose of the plane to carry rockets and other space vehicles weighing up to 500,000 pounds at an altitude of 35,000 feet, then launch those rockets from the plane itself.
With a dual fuselage design and wingspan greater than the length of an American football field, the Stratolaunch aircraft took flight at 0658 PDT from the Mojave Air Space Port. By comparison, a Boeing 747 has a wingspan of about 212 feet - making the Stratolaunch plane nearly twice the size. It's propelled by six PW4056 turbofan engines, and is actually capable of launching multiple rockets on a single flight, up to about 500,000 pounds. Achieving a maximum speed of 189 miles per hour, the plane flew for 2.5 hours over the Mojave Desert at altitudes up to 17,000 feet. As part of the initial flight, the pilots evaluated aircraft performance and handling qualities before landing successfully back at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
“What a fantastic first flight,” said Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch. “Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems. We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today’s flight crew, our partners at Northrup Grumman’s Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.”
The test team conducted standard aircraft testing exercises. Evan Thomas, a former F-16 pilot specialized in experimental flight test, aviation and test safety, flew the Stratolaunch aircraft. He performed a variety of flight control maneuvers to calibrate speed and test flight control systems, including roll doublets, yawing maneuvers, pushovers and pull-ups, and steady heading side slips. The aircraft also conducted simulated landing approach exercises at a max altitude of 15,000 feet mean sea level.
The Stratolaunch aircraft is a mobile launch platform designed to enable airline-style access to space that is "affordable and routine." The reinforced center wing can support multiple launch vehicles, weighing up to a total of 500,000 pounds.
The company seeks to cash in on higher demand in coming years for vessels that can put satellites in orbit, competing in the United States 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 in 2020 at the earliest.
Rather than launch its own rockets, Stratolaunch has shifted strategy to be a platform for other aircraft-launched rockets. In particular, for Northrop Grummon's Pegasus family of rockets. First demonstration Pegasus flights off of the Stratolaunch plane are scheduled for 2020.