A large crowd of spectators watched Stratolaunch’s test flight. The aircraft is central to the late Paul Allen’s vision for Stratolaunch when he started the company in 2011. There were plans to test-fly the aircraft back in 2016. The plane is designed to release rockets that will carry satellites into space. It aims to offer the military, private companies and even NASA itself a more economical way to get into space. “Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight,” said CEO Jean Floyd in 2018.
The plane is made largely of carbon fiber material. Powered by six Pratt & Whitney engines, which were originally designed for Boeing 747s, the aircraft’s wingspan measures 385 feet, wider than any airplane on the planet. It has two cockpits, one in each fuselage , but only one is used to fly the plane. The jet’s landing gear has 28 wheels. The plane burns less fuel than a traditional rocket when it blasts off from Earth. The market for commercial satellite launch services is growing rapidly and is expected to reach $7 billion by 2024. Stratolaunch is facing competition from billionaire Richard Branson and his Virgin Orbit company. Its LauncherOne service wants to fling rockets carrying satellites into orbit from a customized Boeing 747-400. Virgin Orbit plans to conduct its first launch in the middle of the year.