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Paul Allen is taking the wraps off his new space venture this morning, and it’s a big one.

Paul Allen

The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft is teaming with some of the biggest names in aerospace, including his old SpaceShipOne partner Burt Rutan, on a project that will launch payloads and eventually people into low-earth orbit from the air — using a carrier plane expected to be largest aircraft ever flown, with six 747 engines and a wingspan greater than the length of a football field.

The project will be overseen by a new Allen company, Stratolaunch Systems, aiming for a first flight within five years.

With the new venture, Allen joins the scramble to establish viable commercial spaceflight operations following the discontinuation of the U.S. Space Shuttle program. Stratolaunch bills its planned airborne launch system as a more affordable and reliable than traditional launches from the ground — less vulnerable to changing weather conditions, for example.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen says in a news release announcing the project. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

The carrier aircraft, requiring a 12,000-foot runway, will weigh 1.2 million pounds. It will be manufactured by Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites.

A depiction of the Stratolaunch carrier plane, with payload attached, taking off on its way to launch at 30,000 feet.

A multi-stage booster, for launching the payload from the aircraft and taking it into space, will be developed by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, derived from the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Dynetics will build a mating and integration system to connect the carrier aircraft to the rocket booster.

To launch the payload, the booster (weighing as much as 500,000 pounds) will be released from the aircraft at about 30,000 feet. The first-stage engines will then ignite, starting the journey into space, followed later by a second-stage ignition.

After launch, the booster will be tracked from the carrier and the ground.

Allen hinted at the project this year in his memoir, Idea Man, but hasn’t released any details prior to this. SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded man rocket to fly beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

Stratolaunch, based in Huntsville, Ala., is led by former NASA senior executive Gary Wentz as CEO and chairman, with another NASA veteran, Susan Turner, as chief operating officer and technical director. Board members include Rutan, former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, Dynetics executive Dave King, Space Exploration executive Gwynne Shotwell, and Chris Purcell, vice president of technology at Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

Funding and expected cost of the Stratolaunch venture aren’t yet clear. Allen is holding a news conference in Seattle this morning with several of the people involved in the project, and GeekWire will be on hand to gather more details.

Follow-up: With Stratolaunch project, Paul Allen makes a big bet on commercial spaceflight

Here’s the live stream of the press conference going on now in Seattle.

Watch live streaming video from vulcaninc at
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