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Paul Allen's Stratolaunch eyes Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space plane

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Oct 2, 2014, 5:16 UTC

Sen—Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems is looking to use a smaller version of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane to fly people to orbit, company managers announced Wednesday.

Stratolaunch is an air-launched orbital transportation system under development in Mojave, Calif. The mothership, currently under construction, is a massive airplane spanning 385 feet from wingtip to wingtip that will be powered by six 747-class engines. It is designed to fly to an altitude of about 30,000 feet and release a payload, which will then use a separate rocket-powered motor to fly to orbit.

Originally, Stratolaunch will fly satellites, but from the start Allen, a long-time space enthusiast and co-founder of Microsoft, envisioned flying people as well. The company moved a step closer Wednesday with the announcement that it was homing in on Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane as its passenger vehicle.

Plans are still in development, but the current design includes a smaller version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane Sierra Nevada has been developing in partnership with NASA. 

Stratolaunch’s Dream Chaser would be about 75 percent smaller, with seating for a pilot and up to two passengers, or a combination of passengers and crew.

With Stratolaunch’s air-borne launch and Dream Chaser’s runway landing, flying to space and back could be a one-day event.

“We can launch and land back in the same location approximately within 24 hours. That’s a feature I don’t think anyone else can possibly do,” Sierra Nevada senior director Craig Gravelle told reporters at the International Astronomical Congress underway this week in Toronto.

In addition to providing emergency medical evacuation services for sick or injured space station crewmembers, the Stratolaunch-Dream Chaser system could be used for suborbital research or tourism flights or point-to-point suborbital travel.

“The whole point of Stratolaunch is to open up and really allow a fuller exploitation (of space) commercially,” said Stratolaunch executive director Charles Beames.

The Dream Chaser is something like a “space Corvette,” he added. “It has Paul’s attention. He’s very excited about it.”

Allen is expected to make a decision about whether to partner with Sierra Nevada before the end of the year, Beames added.