Stratolaunch, the huge plane designed by the late Paul Allen, flew for the first time Saturday, becoming the largest aircraft ever to take off.
Larger than Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, which stole only once, in 1947, the Stratolaunch took off from the Mojave air and space port in the California desert and remained in the air. for two and a half hours, company officials said, reaching an altitude of 17,000 feet and a top speed of 189 mph.
The aircraft is a giant, with a double fuselage, 28 wheels, six 747 reactors and a longer wingspan than a football field, including end areas.
"We finally did," said Jean Floyd, general manager of Stratolaunch, during a phone interview with reporters. He said it was inspiring "to see Paul Allen's dream come true".
But Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, died in October, leaving in doubt the future of the plane and the company. The representatives of the company did not answer the questions of the journalists and did not discuss the future of the company in a press release. Since Allen's death, the company has significantly reduced its operations and fired dozens of employees.
From the beginning, Allen's dream was to use the plane to help make satellites, and possibly people, in the space more affordable and accessible.
Built by Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, Stratolaunch was designed to carry up to three rockets tied into the sky; the rockets would fall, ignite and spin in space with their payload.
Allen was fascinated by the capabilities of small satellites, how they could help keep an eye on the Earth's environment, and thought that "air-launched" rockets could help pave the way for a new era of space flights.
"The capabilities of these small satellites are really interesting and fascinating," he said. "Both for communications, where many people build satellite constellations, as for monitoring the threatened health of the planet."
By launching rockets from the belly of an airplane, instead of standing vertically from a launch site, the company hoped to reduce the cost of space missions. It is also the model used by Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson, who has developed a plane capable of taking people to the edge of space. Virgin Orbit, another Branson-backed company, is also launching rockets from aircraft.
The Pentagon, which seeks to become more responsive in space, was also interested in Stratlolaunch. Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, visited the aircraft, as did Vice President Pence, Chairman of the National Space Council.
The company was even thinking of manned spaceflight and was already considering developing a mini space shuttle called "Black Ice".
But for the moment, all of these plans seem to be on hold.
Despite the uncertain future of Stratolaunch, company officials said they were celebrating Saturday's flight.
"We saw a few things that were not nominal," said Evan Thomas, test pilot for Scaled Composites. "But really, for a first flight, it was perfect."
Allen, an avid space enthusiast, funded the development of the $ 10 million Ansari X space airplane in 2004, becoming the first non-governmental vehicle to cross the threshold of space.
At the time, however, the risks associated with manned spaceflights worried him and he decided to withdraw from the company. In 2011, however, he was back, announcing his intention to build the world's largest aircraft.
"You want to achieve a number of dreams in your life," he said at the time. "And it's a dream that excites me a lot."