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Stratolaunch airplane
An aerial view shows the Stratolaunch airplane outside its hangar in May 2017. The twin-fuselage aircraft is the world’s largest airplane, measured by wingspan. (Stratolaunch Photo)

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch space venture is returning to an idea it’s long mulled over: launching payloads, and possibly people, into orbit on a reusable space plane.

The concept, known internally as “Black Ice,” would involve the midflight launch of a space shuttle-like vehicle from what will be the world’s largest airplane. It was mentioned today in The Washington Post, in an excerpt adapted from Post reporter Christian Davenport’s forthcoming book, “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.”

“I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going,” Allen told Davenport during a Seattle interview.

In a statement emailed to GeekWire, Stratolaunch confirmed its interest in the concept.

“Our vision for Stratolaunch is to offer a broad spectrum of capabilities from small, medium, to fully reusable,” the company said. “Black Ice is an aspirational concept we are exploring; however, no decisions have been made yet.”

Allen founded Stratolaunch back in 2011, and right now, the company’s first priority is to get its six-engine, twin-fuselage, 385-foot-wingspan airplane — nicknamed Roc, after a mythical giant bird — fully tested and into the air.

Last week, the company reported that the plane went through a successful series of high-speed taxi tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Stratolaunch has said test flights could begin by 2019.

Once Roc passes all its tests, Stratolaunch aims to fit rockets onto the mothership, drop them from high altitude, and launch satellite payloads into orbit. The company already is partnering with Orbital ATK on the rockets, and there may be other partners in the works as well.

The reusable space plane concept could be the focus of a follow-up phase in Stratolaunch’s development plan.

As described, the Black Ice space plane would be about as big as NASA’s now-retired space shuttle and capable of staying in orbit for at least three days. Its main purpose, at least at first, would be to deploy small satellites and experiments robotically.

“The capabilities of these small satellites is something that’s really interesting and fascinating, both for communications, where a lot of people are putting up constellations of satellites for monitoring the challenged health of our planet,” Davenport quotes Allen as saying.

Such satellites could be used to monitor wildlife conservation efforts and illegal fishing, two of Allen’s big philanthropic interests.

The space plane could make deliveries to the International Space Station, and perhaps eventually carry people. “Stratolaunch will be capable of sending humans to space, although that’s not something we’re focused on at this time,” the company told GeekWire via email.

In the Post report, Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd described the concept as “an airplane carrying a plane that’s fully reusable.”

“You don’t throw anything away ever,” Floyd said. “Only fuel.”

The Stratolaunch concept makes it possible to launch from a wide range of locations and put a payload into any orbital inclination — which is a big advantage over fixed launch pads.

Stratolaunch said it had no technical details to share at this time, but based on the information available so far, Black Ice sounds like a re-imagining of the space plane concept that Stratolaunch considered in 2014.

Back then, the company was partnering with California-based Sierra Nevada Corp. on an effort that would have involved sending a version of SNC’s Dream Chaser space plane into orbit, on the front end of an air-launched Orbital ATK rocket.

Dream Chaser looks like a mini-space shuttle, and can theoretically carry people as well as cargo to orbit. The cargo version is being developed for transporting shipments to and from the space station, with service due to start as early as 2020.

Stratolaunch set aside the concept, and the SNC partnership, as it reconsidered its business strategy. But the reports about Black Ice suggest that the idea has continued to percolate.

Allen’s interest in launching reusable space planes goes even farther back — to SpaceShipOne, the precursor to Stratolaunch as well as British billionaire Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo effort. Allen was the financial backer for the reusable SpaceShipOne space plane and its White Knight mothership, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

When it comes to Black Ice, there are a couple of big questions to consider. One is technical: How well will the concept work within the Stratolaunch system’s 550,000-pound takeoff weight limit for piggyback payloads? The space shuttle, including its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, weighed far more than that at liftoff — but the air-launch system would allow for a dramatic weight reduction.

The other question is financial: Who will pay the bill for developing and operating the space plane? Allen’s net worth is currently estimated at $21.7 billion, but he hasn’t shown much intention of running Stratolaunch like a charity.

In addition to commercial satellite operators, Stratolaunch’s potential customers include NASA and the Department of Defense. Creating a new orbital transit system could conceivably mesh with NASA’s new mandate to shift more of its space operations in low Earth orbit to commercial entities, as well as the Pentagon’s increased interest in ensuring space security.

Stratolaunch even came in for a mention today at a House subcommittee hearing on NASA’s budget. U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif., asked NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, whether he saw the prospect of “a good partnership” with companies like Stratolaunch.

Lightfoot said NASA’s approach to commercial launch services “really allows new entrants to come in.”

“We have a really good on-ramping way for them to demonstrate their capability, and become part of our toolbox to get our missions done,” he said. “So, yeah, absolutely, we see an opportunity for those folks.”

The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport will be talking about “The Space Barons” at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on April 25. The event will be presented in partnership with Town Hall Inside Out, with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle as moderator. Tickets are available via Town Hall Seattle’s website.

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