The aircraft took flight for two and a half hours, hitting speeds of up to 300 kilometres (189 miles per hour) before touching down safely at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The Stratolaunch, an ungainly-looking aircraft with twin fuselages, had been the pet project of billionaire Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen.
It is hoped the plane will ultimately be able to launch 250-ton satellite-bearing rockets into the stratosphere. This would be a major step towards more cost-effective spaceflight and would mean rockets could take off from runways instead of the very few rocket launch sites that are available.
It could also bypass some of the problems that can ground a traditional rocket launch, like bad weather.
Stratolaunch was the brainchild for billionaire Paul Allen
The company has been preparing the aircraft, known as the ‘Roc’, for eight years. Sadly, Allen passed away last year before he could see its successful first run.
The Stratolaunch Roc took off before sunrise and ascended to a height of 5180 metres (17,000 feet) during the successful test flight.
“All of you have been very patient and very tolerant over the years waiting for us to get this big bird off the ground, and we finally did it,” Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd told reporters during a press briefing.
“I’m really excited today to share that we have successfully flown the Stratolaunch aircraft for its first test flight this morning,” he said.
“It was an emotional moment for me to personally watch this majestic bird take flight and to see Paul Allen’s dream come to life in front of my very eyes.”
Evan Thomas, a Test Pilot who completed the first flight, said the Stratolaunch’s systems “ran like a watch”.
“The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want the first flight to be,” he continued. “For the most part, the airplane flew as predicted, which is again exactly what we want.”
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) April 15, 2019
Multiple companies striving to offer commercial spaceflight
The company says it plans to launch its first rockets in 2020 at the earliest.
Earlier in 2019, it pivoted away from plans to develop a rocket engine and a rocket-powered plane to concentrate on the satellite-launching aircraft. It also retrenched a number of staff in the restructure. Spaceflight competitors SpaceX (run by Elon Musk) and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also announced layoffs as they moved towards making space tourism a commercial reality.
Competition in the burgeoning industry is set to be fierce with a number of players boasting significant resources to secure a foothold. Jeff Bezos has reportedly poured more than US$1 billion a year into Blue Origin, his ambitious spaceflight company and aerospace manufacturer.
The company will have to pass through several stages of regulatory hurdles before offering its first flights.
The previous record holder for largest plane was Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. The famously eccentric tycoon built a flying Hercules flying boat that had a wingspan of 98 metres (320 feet). The Spruce Goose only ever made one flight but seeing it in an aviation museum inspired Allen.
Header image credit: Stratolaunch