On Saturday morning, exactly 45 minutes after the sun rises over the Mojave Desert, the largest aircraft ever built – and its record-breaking 385-foot wing span – climbed for the very first time. The airplane of the company Stratolaunch is present for eight years. By 2022, the company hopes to use the six-engine two-engine catamaran aircraft to launch space-based rockets into space.
"They have all been very patient and tolerant over the years and have been waiting for us to bring this big bird down to earth and we finally made it," said Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd to a reporter. The company reported speeds of 189 mph and 17,000-foot highs during a 150-minute test flight before safely landing on the Mojave Air and Space Port.
"The systems in the plane ran like a clock," test pilot Evan Thomas told reporters.
But the day's events were bittersweet. The co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, a longtime space enthusiast who founded and funded the Stratolaunch project, died last October at the age of 65 from complications related to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "Even though he was not there today when the plane was gracefully lifted off the runway, I whispered a thank you to Paul for taking part in this remarkable achievement," said Floyd.
One day, Stratolaunch hopes to transport 250-ton satellite-loaded rocket ships up to a height of 35,000 feet into the stratosphere. At cruising altitude, the engines fired a rocket and carried them and their satellite charge the rest of the way into space. Only a few facilities, such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, can handle missile launches, which means tight scheduling and long waiting times. Aircraft can take off from many other airstrips that Stratolaunch hopes will give their aircraft a competitive edge over those who want to put satellites into orbit.
The aircraft's six Pratt & Whitney engines and 28-wheel landing gear were originally developed for the Boeing 747. In fact, Scaled Composites, which worked with Stratolaunch to build the aircraft, saved money by re-using three 747s to assemble it. The plane fills almost every corner of its 100,000-square-foot hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. His maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. (It's also worth mentioning that while the aircraft has the largest span, other aircraft are in length.)
Stratolaunch's ambitions have shifted in the past few years. Originally intended to launch modified SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets into space, the two companies soon parted ways. By 2016, she had found a new partner, the Orbital ATK of Northrop Grumman, which builds the Pegasus XL rocket. Previously, Stratolaunch hoped to build its own rocket ship and rocket engines, but canceled the project and fired some workers earlier this year.
Although representatives of Allen's holding company have said that the billionaire planned to finance stratolaunch before his death, the future of the company is not clear. A company spokesman was unable to tell immediately when Stratolaunch was planning additional flights, and the aircraft must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration before it can transport rockets and satellites into space.
The Stratolaunch project is also under pressure from outside. Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit plans to conduct its own test of a modified Boeing 747 later this year, an aircraft also built to launch space-based rockets into orbit.
And behind all the ambitious engineers and aviation experts is also the specter of Spruce goose, The plane, a marvel when it was completed in 1947 as a pet project by the eccentric business magnate Howard Hughes, flew back only a mile before retiring to an Oregon Museum – where Allen was supposed to be there.
On Saturday morning, the Stratolaunch team was in great spirits. "We dedicate this day to the man who has inspired us all to look for ways to strengthen the world's problem solvers, Paul Allen," Floyd said. "No doubt he would have been exceptionally proud if he let his plane fly."
This story originally appeared on wired.com.