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New operating system for space: High-tech tycoons

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Published : Dec. 14, 2011 - 10:47

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SEATTLE (AP) -- The tycoons of cyberspace are looking to bankroll America's resurgence in outer space, reviving ``Star Trek'' dreams that first interested them in science.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made the latest step Tuesday, unveiling plans for a new commercial spaceship that, instead of blasting off a launch pad, would be carried high into the atmosphere by the widest plane ever built before it fires its rockets.

He joins Silicon Valley powerhouses Elon Musk of PayPal and Jeff Bezos of Amazon in a new private space race that attempts to fill the gap left when the U.S. government ended the space shuttle program.

Musk, whose Space Exploration Technologies will send its Dragon capsule to dock with the International Space Station in February, will provide the capsule and booster rocket for Allen's venture, which is called Stratolaunch. Bezos is building a rival private spaceship.

Allen is working with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who collaborated with the tycoon in 2004 to win a $10 million prize for the first flight of a private spaceship that went into space but not orbit.

Allen says his enormous airplane and spaceship system will go to ``the next big step: a private orbital space platform business.''

The new system is ``a radical change'' in how people can get to space, and it will ``keep America at the forefront of space exploration,'' Allen said.

Their plane will have a 380-foot(116-meter) wingspan _ longer than a football field and wider than the biggest aircraft ever, Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose.

It will launch a space capsule equipped with a booster rocket, which will send the spacecraft into orbit. This method saves money by not using rocket fuel to get off the ground. The spaceship may hold as many as six people.

In this artist`s rendering provided by Stratolaunch Systems, a planned plane that would launch cargo and astronauts into space is seen. (AP-Yonhap News) In this artist`s rendering provided by Stratolaunch Systems, a planned plane that would launch cargo and astronauts into space is seen. (AP-Yonhap News)


``When I was growing up, America's space program was the symbol of aspiration,'' said Allen, who mentioned his love of science fiction and early human spaceflights. ``For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible.''

Allen is not alone in having such dreams, and the money to gamble on making them come true.

Bezos set up the secretive private space company Blue Origin, which has received $3.7 million in NASA start-up funds to develop a rocket to carry astronauts. Its August flight test ended in failure.

``Space was the inspiration that got people into high-tech ... at least individuals in their 40s and 50s,'' said Peter Diamandis, who created the space prize Allen won earlier and is a high-tech mogul-turned space business leader himself. ``Now they're coming full circle.''

Diamandis helped found a company that sends tourists to space for at least $25 million a ride, and seven of the eight rides involved high-tech executives living out their space dreams. One is a former Microsoft colleague of Allen's, Charles Simonyi, who paid at least $20 million apiece for two rides into orbit and attended Allen's Tuesday news conference, saying he wouldn't mind a third flight.

``Space has a draw for humanity,'' not just high-tech billionaires, Simonyi said, but he acknowledged that most people don't have the cash to take that trip.

Space experts welcome the burst of high-tech interest in a technology that 50 years ago spurred the development of computers.

``Space travel the way we used to do it has a `50s and `60s ring to it,'' said retired George Washington University space policy professor John Logsdon. ``These guys have a vision of revitalizing a sector that makes it 21st century.''

But Logsdon said the size of the capsule and rocket going to space seemed kind of small to him, only carrying 13,000 pounds. It didn't seem like a game-changer, he said.

Stratolaunch's air-launch method is already used by an older rocket company, Orbital Sciences Corp., to launch satellites. It's also the same method used by the first plane to break the sound barrier more than 50 years ago.

Stratolaunch, to be based in Huntsville, Alabama, bills its method of getting to space as ``any orbit, any time.'' Rutan will build the carrier aircraft, which will use six 747 engines. The first unmanned test flight is tentatively scheduled for 2016.

NASA, in a statement, welcomed Allen to the space business, saying his plan ``has the potential to make future access to low-Earth orbit more competitive, timely, and less expensive.''

Unlike its competitors, Allen's company isn't relying on start-up money from NASA, which is encouraging private companies to take the load of hauling cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The space agency, which retired the space shuttle fleet earlier this year, plans to leave that more routine work to private companies and concentrate on deep space human exploration of an asteroid, the moon and even Mars.

Allen's company is looking at making money from tourists and launching small communications satellites, as well as from NASA and the Defense Department, said former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, a Stratolaunch board member who spoke at a Tuesday news conference.

Just three months ago, Griffin was testifying before Congress that he thought the Obama administration's reliance on private companies for space travel ``does not withstand a conventional business case analysis.''

This is different because it's private money, with no help or dependence on government dollars, said Griffin, who served under President George W. Bush.

Allen and Rutan collaborated on 2004's SpaceShipOne, which was also launched in the air from a special aircraft in back-to-back flights. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic licensed the technology and is developing SpaceShipTwo to carry tourists to space. But Allen's first efforts were more a hobby, while this would be more a business, Logsdon said.

SpaceShipOne cost $28 million, but this will cost much more, officials said.

Allen left Microsoft in 1983, and has pursued many varied interests since then. He's the owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team as well as the NBA's Portland Trailblazers. He also founded a Seattle museum that emphasizes science fiction.

Allen said this venture fits with his technology bent.

``I'm a huge fan of anything to push the boundaries of science,'' Allen said.

 

<한글기사>

초대형 비행기로 우주선 발사한다



최초의 민간 유인우주선 '스페이스십원'으로  우주산업 의 새 기원을 이뤘던 폴 앨런 마이크로소프트(MS) 공동창업자가 본격적인 상업 우주선 개발에 나섰다.

앨런이 스페이스십원 설계자인 버트 루턴과 손잡고 창업한 미국의 스트래토론치 시스템 사는 자사의 우주선 스트래토론치를 오는 2015년 첫 시험비행을 거쳐 2016년 첫 무인 발사할 계획이라고 13일(현지시간) 밝혔다.

또 유인 발사까지는 앞으로 향후 5년가량 걸릴 것이라고 전망했다.

스트래토론치는 스페이스십원과 마찬가지로 모선인 항공기에 로켓을 부착, 공중에서 로켓을 발사해 우주선을 지구 궤도에 올려놓는 방식을 채택했다.

이 방식은 기존의 지상 발사 로켓보다 발사 장소와 시간 등의 제약이 적고 로켓 연료도 상당히 절약돼 경제성에서 월등하다고 이들은 설명했다.

이를 통해 마치 공항에서 항공기가 이착륙하는 것처럼 우주발사를 일상적인  수 준으로 만들겠다는 것이 이들의 계획이다.

스트래토론치의 모선은 보잉 747 여객기의 엔진 6대를 장착한 초대형 항공기로, 이 회사는 모선의 설계 작업을 상당히 진행한 단계라고 밝혔다.

최근 사들인 보잉 747 두 대의 부품을 사용해 모선을 건조할 방침이며, 모선 전 용 격납고도 모하비 사막에 건설 중이다.

모선은 완성되면 날개 너비가 117m 이상으로 현존하는 최대 여객기 에어버스 A3 80 기종보다 50% 가까이 큰 사상 최대의 항공기가 될 전망이다.

사람과 인공위성 등 화물을 지구 궤도에 올려놓는 우주선은 다른  민간우주업체 인 스페이스X사의 우주선을 활용할 계획이다.

이 회사는 미 항공우주국(NASA)의 우주왕복선 사업 종결로 생긴 공백을 메우는 것을 목표로 하고 있다.

따라서 우선 통신용 등 각종 민간 인공위성과 NASA·국방부 등이 사용하는 인공 위성 발사 시장을 노릴 것이라고 이 회사 이사로 합류한 마이크 그리핀 전 NASA  국장은 밝혔다.

앨런은 과거 스페이스십원 개발에 사용한 2천500만달러(약 288억원) 이상의  자 금을 스트래토론치에 투입할 계획이다.

앨런은 "근시 때문에 파일럿이 되려는 꿈을 접었지만 우주에 대한 꿈을 접은 적 이 없다"며 "이제 우리는 우주발사 산업의 근본적인 변화의 여명기에 이르렀다"고 말했다.

앨런은 지난 2004년 최초의 민간 유인우주선인 스페이스십원을 성공적으로 발사 해 우주연구 후원단체인 안사리 X프라이즈 재단이 내건 상금 1천만 달러(약 115억원 )를 획득한 바 있다. (연합뉴스)