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Giant plane to launch people into orbit

SEATTLE -- Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan are building the world's biggest plane to help launch cargo and astronauts into space in the latest of several ventures fueled by technology tycoons clamoring to write America's next chapter in spaceflight.

Their plans, unveiled yesterday, call for a twin-fuselage aircraft with wings longer than a football field to carry a rocket high into the atmosphere and drop it, avoiding the need for a launchpad and cutting the use of rocket fuel.

Allen, who teamed up with Rutan in 2004 to send the first privately financed, manned spacecraft into space, said his new project would "keep America at the forefront of space exploration."

Allen and Rutan join a field crowded with Silicon Valley veterans who grew up on "Star Trek" and now want to fill a void created with the retirement of NASA's space shuttle. Several companies are competing to develop spacecraft to go to the International Space Station.

The new plane, with a wingspan of 380 feet, will carry under its belly a space capsule with its own booster rocket; it will blast into orbit after the plane climbs high into the atmosphere. -- AP

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