The Most Audacious Flying Machine Ever

Alt-aviation wizard Burt Rutan set out to design a plane that could haul rockets to the edge of space. Then he persuaded Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to build a dual-fuselage beast with a wingspan longer than a football field.

On December 13, 2011, Paul Allen, the reclusive billionaire and cofounder of Microsoft, stood in front of a group of reporters in Seattle and told them about his wild new plan.

Wearing the tech-Brahmin uniform of navy blazer, dress shirt, and conspicuously absent tie, Allen made some introductory remarks and then rolled a video simulation of a strange beast of an aircraft leaving an oversize hangar. This was Strato­launch. It would be the largest airplane, by wingspan, ever created. The twin-fuselage, catamaran-style aircraft would be a flying launchpad, its purpose to heave a half-million-pound rocket ship to cruising altitude and then drop it, whereupon the rocket would ignite its engines for a fiery ascent into space. Allen’s hope was that this extraordinary bird would be able to do quick laps between the ground and the stratosphere, making access to space no more exotic than a New York–to–Boston commuter flight.

Burt Rutan took the microphone next. Rutan, a gregarious designer of exotic aircraft, wore a light-blue work shirt and sported huge Elvis-style muttonchops. He was the original architect of the outlandish endeavor and the person who had sold Allen on the project. “Right here in front of us is a very large mistake,” he said, landing heavily on the word mistake and jabbing his finger at a model of the plane. The problem, he explained, was that no one in the room could possibly grasp how friggin’ big Stratolaunch would be. For them to have any sense, they’d have to understand that even a Boeing 747 would seem like a Tinkertoy in comparison. Rutan’s devilish grin said it all: This would be a plane to defy the imagination. The plane, he and Allen said, would take its first flight in 2015.

Three years past that target date, the plane finally exists, and as Rutan promised, it is one big mama. As I discovered, nothing—not even a Rutan-approved scale model—can prepare you for an encounter with it.

This past December I traveled to the Mojave Air and Space Port, a desert city of giant industrial structures in Southern California, where Stratolaunch was built. The plane’s facility on the eastern edge of the port stands out among the other structures. After walking through some drab offices, I was escorted into the approximately 100,000-square-foot hangar. The gleaming white Stratolaunch didn’t just fill the expanse; it reached into every corner of it. There was no way to take in the monster with a single glance. Starting near its tail, I walked through and around it, craning my neck and stretching on my tiptoes to gather mental snapshots of the two fuselages and the white drag strip of a wing and stitch them together into one panoramic picture.

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