A unique airplane called the Cosmic Girl landed at Texas State Technical College's airport in Waco earlier this year and parked inside one of the big hangars there. When it rolled out months later, the airplane was ready to launch a space rocket from under one wing while flying at high altitudes.
Richard Branson's company, Virgin Orbit, delivered the 747-400 to defense contractor L-3 for conversion into a flying launch pad for small satellites. The company, founded with a focus on space tourism, is also chasing future customers who want to launch satellites. Virgin Orbit says the airplane "will operate from a variety of locations independently of traditional launch ranges — which are often congested with traffic — and will have the ability to operate through or around weather conditions and other impediments that delay traditional launches."
[content-1] Virgin chose L-3's Waco engineers for more than their experience with airliners; the staff there worked on previous space programs. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — a 747 heavily modified to support a 20-ton far-infrared telescope, known as SOFIA — is the best-known success that has roots in Waco.
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"These programs are not frequent but complement the other work we do," L-3 spokesman Lance Martin says.
Yesterday, the company released video of the Cosmic Girl during test flights in the Mojave Desert in California. Rocket launches from the airplane are expected in 2018.