The first time I ever saw a C-130 in person was as it came crashing down on a small air strip near Palm Springs, California in what was, at the time, the most brutal landing I had ever seen. I had been in the “Fleet Marine Force” for only a few weeks, and my wife and I had only just arrived in Twentynine Palms when I got scooped up as part of a security detail for the funeral of President Gerald Ford. It was a trip I wasn’t able to warn her I was being taken on, and that would leave my new wife alone throughout New Years in a state she had never even visited before.
Despite the concerns I had about my wife not knowing where I was (I didn’t have a cell phone at the time because I was poor and it was a long time ago), all of my trepidation vanished as I watched the biggest airplane I thought I’d ever seen belly flop onto the tarmac. I’d find out later that it was full of military personnel from various branches coming in for the funeral, and what I thought was a crash was actually Marine pilots making sure their passengers knew how tough Marines and their birds can be… but even that early revelation into our relationship with other services was drowned out in my mind by the sheer scale of the aircraft. With its 133-foot wingspan, the C-130 is a big, bad plane, deserving of every bit of my awe, and it’s because of my memories of that flight line detail all those years ago that I’m able to grasp the scale of a new aircraft that was unveiled on Wednesday, the Stratolaunch.
The C-130 seems plenty big in person, but the 385-foot wingspan on the Stratolaunch is positively massive. This new aircraft has a wingspan nearly equivalent to three C-130s lined up wing tip to wing tip. To extend that comparison to payload capacity, the C-130’S respectable 45,000 pound maximum capacity is again dwarfed almost comically by the Stratolaunch’s more than 500,000 pounds of payload.
In every sense of the word, this new airplane is massive.
Powered by six of the same engines used on the Boeing 747, this fifty foot tall behemoth taxis down the runway on twenty-eight wheels and uses a twin-fuselage design that makes it look like the sort of thing you’d be more likely to see in science fiction comic books of another era, rather than the future of space travel.
That’s right, this massive aircraft isn’t designed to ferry equipment like the workhorse C-130 I compared it to – no, it’s designed to carry space ships up to normal cruising altitude before launching them toward the great beyond.
“As the launch vehicle rockets into orbit, Stratolaunch will fly back to a runway landing for reloading, refueling and reuse,” Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen explained. Allen has been responsible for bringing the Stratolaunch to production and believes it to be the future of affordable space travel.
“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,” Allen wrote about his project last year.
While not the longest aircraft ever built (a title held by the six-engine Antonov An-225 cargo jet — which was originally designed to carry a Soviet version of the space shuttle) it does have the largest wingspan of all time. Even aviation legend Howard Hughes’ mythic H-4 “Spruce Goose” had a wingspan that came in 18 feet shy of the Stratolaunch’s record – and it only ever took to the air once.
Then again, the Stratolaunch has yet to even match that number of flights. It’s slated to make its airborne debut sometime in the future, with a launch demonstration slated for 2019.
“Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be actively conducting ground and flight line testing at the Mojave Air and Space Port,” Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This is a first-of-its-kind aircraft, so we’re going to be diligent throughout testing and continue to prioritize the safety of our pilots, crew and staff.”
Of course, Paul Allen isn’t the only tech-mogul billionaire with his eyes set on the final frontier. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has famously announced their intentions to use reusable rockets to ferry cargo to and from the moon, and Elon Musk, the head of companies like Tesla and SpaceX, is already bringing equipment to the International Space Station using boosters and even capsules that have already spent time in orbit.
Allen’s pursuit of cost-effective space travel seems to borrow some elements from the competition, in that he too intends to reuse his space launch vehicles, and launching from a high rate of speed at 30,000 feet could potentially reduce costs when compared to ground-based launches conducted by traditional space-faring organizations.
Will this giant airplane be our ticket to the stars? Only time will tell, but in the mean time, this massive airplane will be sure to turn some heads.
Images courtesy of Stratolaunch