The largest airplane ever, called Roc and developed by Stratolaunch, had a successful first flight this Saturday, April 13th. It has a 385 foot wingspan, which is longer than a football field, and is powered by six Boeing 747 engines. It took off from the Mojave Air & Space port in california and then flew for 2.5 hours. “The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want the first flight to be”, test pilot Evan Thomas said in a news briefing. The plane is designed to carry and launch satellites in low earth orbit.
The company was formed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen who unfortunately passed away in October 2018, shortly after the plane went under development. After the successful flight his sister Jody Allen said in a statement, “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.”
Roc is able to carry space satellites that can weigh up to 500,000 pounds to a height of 35,000 feet. Launching satellites from an aircraft verses a rocket on the ground offers advantages. Since the plane is doing all of the work of getting to near space orbit, the satellite doesn’t need as much fuel and has more room for payload. That’s the biggest trade-off. Also, it alleviates the very few rocket launch sites in the US, because the Roc can be flown out of any large airport.
The future of Stratolaunch as a business is unclear, as is the future of space technology. Elon Musk isn’t a fan of sending rockets to space using airplanes- “It’s maybe a 5% improvement in payload to orbit…and then you’ve got this humongous plane to deal with.” On the other hand, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit does exactly that with their LauncherOne program but for small satellites, and he’s already had dozens of customers.