Paul Allen Teams with Burt Rutan, SpaceX on Air-launched Rocket

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WASHINGTON —Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced Dec. 13 the formation of Stratolaunch Systems, a Huntsville, Ala.-based company that aims to build an air-launched orbital launch system comprising a SpaceX-built booster and carrier aircraft developed by Scaled Composites.

Designed to carry up to 6,100 kilograms of payload to orbit, the Stratolaunch system would offer similar performance to the Delta 2, a medium-lift workhorse rocket widely used by NASA until the U.S. Air Force shifted its launch traffic and financial support to the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.

The company will be led by a former NASA chief engineer, Gary Wentz, and will be overseen by a board of directors that includes former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin — now a professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville — and David King, who was director of Marshall Space Flight Center under Griffin and now serves as executive vice president of Dynetics.

Also based in Huntsville, Dynetics will build a mating and integration system for the Stratolaunch Systems carrier aircraft.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is represented on the Stratolaunch board of directors by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

The new venture, which reunites Allen with his X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne collaborator and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, aims to conduct its first flight within five years.

“Work has already started on our project at the Mojave spaceport,” Allen said during  the project’s Dec. 13 unveiling at the Seattle headquarters of his investment company, Vulcan Inc.

For now, Allen will provide all the funding for the project, which he expects to cost “at least an order of magnitude more” than SpaceShipOne, the Rutan-designed, air-launched suborbital spaceplane that won the $10 million X Prize in 2004 by reaching 100 kilometers in altitude twice in a two-week period.

Allen, who was worth an estimated $13 billion in 2011, has said he invested $28 million in SpaceShipOne’s development, which was led by Scaled Composites. The Mojave, Calif.-based company is currently building and testing Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier craft and the air-launched SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane.

Allen said Scaled Composites, Dynetics and SpaceX will act as Stratolaunch subcontractors and will not be investing money of their own.

The Stratolaunch Systems mother ship will be capable of launching a booster that weighs up to 222,000 kilograms. The carrier aircraft will operate from a large airport or spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and be able to fly up to 2,400 kilometers to the payload’s launch point and boost up to 6,100 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit.

Griffin said Stratolaunch “would make a very effective launcher” for small- and medium-class communications satellites, a market he described as “thriving.”

While Stratolaunch is being designed with an eye toward one day carrying both people and payloads into orbit, Griffin said initial business with NASA would be focused on “unmanned payloads that are not cargo to the space station.”

SpaceX’s contribution to the project is a downsized version of the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s ground-launched Falcon 9 rocket.

“It will either be along the lines of a Falcon 4 or Falcon 5,” said Adam Harris, SpaceX vice president of business development, referring to the number of kerosene-fueled Merlin engines the booster will use. “It will be shorter than the existing Falcon 9 vehicle, and we’re currently running trades to determine what kind of wings or fins it may actually need to make the turn from the drop” off of the carrier ship.