Stratolaunch, a private launch company, flew the world’s largest aircraft for the first time ever on the morning of April 13, 2019. The maiden test flight of the craft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port, Mojave, California. The wingspan of the craft is bigger than a football field.
The company was launched by late billionaire Paul Allen in 2011; is a private spaceflight company that seeks to launch rockets into orbit from a high altitude using its megaplane carrier aircraft. In a statement released by Stratolaunch on the day of the launch, Paul’s sister Jody Allen said, “We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement. The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement, and we congratulate everyone involved.”
The flight was not officially announced by the company but was a surprise to photographers who spotted the airplane’s flight at the airport where test flights were being conducted in the past months by the company.
Jack Beyer, aerospace photographer, who is also posting pictures of the maiden flight on his Twitter and Instagram, expressed his astonishment to Space.com, “It was surprising. In a way, I expected it to take longer. And then I realized it was actually effortlessly in the air and was astounded.”
Beyer said the number of onlookers who watched the Stratolaunch’s test flight cannot be termed as a massive crowd but it was a larger gathering as compared to that when another spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, executed space launches from the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The airplane is named Roc, taking off at 6:58 a.m PDT (1258 hrs GMT), staying airborne for 2.5 hours, reaching a peak altitude of 17,000 feet, at a maximum speed of 304 km/h; ended with a touchdown back at Mojave Air and Space Port. This flight allowed the pilots to evaluate Roc’s performance and handling.
Roc is the largest ever built carrier plane featuring twin fuselage and six jet engines, having a wingspan of 385 feet, about the same length as International Space Station. This plane was built by Scaled Composites, the same Mojave-based aerospace company that built Space Ship One, the first commercial suborbital spacecraft. This aircraft is designed to release satellite-carrying rockets at an altitude of about 35,000 feet; the boosters will be released so the payloads can be launched up into orbit.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for NASA’s science directorate tweeted “A historic milestone for the Stratolaunch team with this record setting aircraft taking flight. This is about going to the edge of space and beyond!”
Stratolaunch had previously teamed up with SpaceX to build a modified version of the rocket Falcon 9, but the team could not work together and split within an year. Following this split, a new rocket Thunderbolt was planned with the stepping in of Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK and now Northrop Grumman).
At one point in time, the carrier plane was to be used to launch small rockets and a small space shuttle which was being developed by Stratolaunch itself; prior to which it was using small rockets Pegasus XL vehicles of Orbital ATK. Earlier in this year Stratolaunch shut down this program of developing small rockets and shifted its focus to launching Pegasus XL rockets which are built by Northrop Grumman.
Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said in a statement. “What a fantastic first flight. Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems. We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today’s flight crew, our partners at Northrup Grumman’s Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.”