The world’s largest airplane took flight for the first time ever on Saturday morning. Built by rocket launch company Stratolaunch, the 500,000-pound plane with a 385-foot wingspan lifted off shortly after 10AM ET from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California. It’s a critical first test flight for the aircraft, designed to launch rockets into orbit from the air.
The inaugural flight is expected to last a few hours. The dual-fuselage Stratolaunch is designed to fly to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where it can drop rockets that ignite their engines and boost themselves into orbit around the planet. There is no rocket on this particular flight. But the company has already signed at least one customer, Northrop Grumman, which plans to use Stratolaunch to send its Pegasus XL rocket into space.
Today’s flight comes just three months after Stratolaunch laid off “more than 50” employees and canceled efforts to develop its own rockets. Originally, the company had planned to build a whole suite of rockets, including a spaceplane. The change in plans was reportedly sparked by the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who started Stratolaunch in 2011.
The road to today’s launch involved a number of incremental tests over the last few years, including the initial rollout and an engine test in 2017, and a number of taxis down the runway in Mojave at various speeds.