Some Thoughts — Random and Otherwise — on Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch vehicle. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

Well, the excitement of last week’s big (no, humungous!) Stratolaunch announcement has finally settled down. And that means there’s been time for those in the know, those who want to know, and everyone else to gossip, speculate and compare notes. Below are the results of what I’ve been hearing and reading….

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…. Birdzilla? My nickname seems to be catching on. I heard several people use it in conversation during Plane Crazy Saturday in Mojave. It’s also being used in discussion forums. Birdzilla is leading the Parabolic Arc poll. Please cast your ballot. Vote your conscience.

What problem does this solve? This has been puzzling a few people, who tend to view this as an incremental step forward that doesn’t quite solve anything.

The company’s answer is its motto, “any orbit, any time.” Instead of sitting on a fixed launch pad and waiting for that one brief window per day when the International Space Station (or a private Bigelow facility) is in the right position, you launch at your own convenience. Rendezvous might take two hours instead of two days.

Time is money. To be able to put cargo, crew or a satellite into the right orbit at the exact time is a significant cost saver. One also avoids range fees. The re-usability of the first-stage carrier aircraft means it can return to base, get fitted with another booster, and launch a new satellite rapidly. Fixed rockets don’t have that flexibility, which can cause significant backlogs.

On the other hand, this is not a fully-reusable system, with no recovery of the Falcon-derived booster (at least not at  first). So, if Allen is going to invest that much money into a new launcher, why not something more ambitious? It’s his money, of course, so he can do what he wants.

Paul Allen
Stratolaunch Systems, a Paul  G. Allen (legacy) project?  Allen sounded almost wistful at the press conference. “You have a certain number of dreams in your life that you want to fulfill, and this is a dream I’m very excited about,” he said.

Allen, who will turn 59 next month, has beaten cancer twice in his life. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a diagnose that came 27 years after he had been treated for Hodgkin’s disease. According to his Wikipedia biography, he has been free of cancer since October 2010.

And speaking of legacy projects…. This one pulled Burt Rutan right out of retirement. Its not clear how much Burt has been — or will be — working on Stratolaunch (based on the press conference, it doesn’t sound like a lot). But, it was good to see him out in public again. And given his reputation and previous success with Allen on SpaceShipOne, his presence was certainly appropriate and added the appropriate gravitas to the project.

Burt Rutan

Someone mentioned to me that Rutan recently commented about wanting to fly to the moon and that he thought he had a perfect design to do it. Stratolaunch would certainly be a system that could launch an unmanned upper stage into orbit and then a manned trans-lunar vehicle in fairly short order and with great precision. The vehicles dock on the first orbit, fire up the engine, and off they go to the moon.

It would be cool if Rutan flew around the moon. Imagine his smiling face and mutton-chop sideburns reflected against a porthole of a capsule as he gazes out at the lunar surface below.

Oh, about that other air-launched venture…. With its humungous size and orbital objectives, Stratolaunch invites some unflattering comparisons to Scaled Composite’s much smaller, less ambitious air-launch system, the suborbital WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo built for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Despite more than seven years of development and nearly $300 million spent, SpaceShipTwo has yet to take a single powered flight, much less fly tourists into space.

Following the Stratolaunch announcement, wags speculated that this was, among other things, a way for Rutan to stick it to Branson, with whom he’s reputed to have had a difficult relationship. It’s hard to say whether that’s true. However, it is notable that before the press conference even started, Branson issued a statement welcoming the new venture and reminiscing about the early days with his BFFs Burt and Paul:

MOJAVE, CA ― The announcement from Paul Allen and Burt Rutan today represents the latest chapter in the extraordinary story of commercial space. The initial collaboration between the two men produced SpaceShipOne and gave Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic the confidence to make the significant investment required to commercialise the prototype technology, thus creating the world’s first spaceline. With that project nearing completion and Virgin Galactic on the cusp of offering safe and commercially viable suborbital space flight for the very first time, it is exciting to see such a credible consortium now seeking to continue the heritage of air-launched space access towards the significant challenge of orbital flight.

Virgin Galactic has established itself as the lead operator of private sector manned spaceflight and as such is building a body of knowledge, expertise and assets, all of which will be invaluable as we assess the commercial opportunities that emerging technologies present. We therefore look forward to working closely with Stratolaunch as the project unfolds over the coming years.

Commenting on the announcement, Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Galactic said: “I very much welcome today’s announcement from Paul and Burt. It takes me back to the exciting conversations the three of us had in 2004 when we first started talking about commercialising SpaceShipOne technology. We’ve come a long way since then; WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo are built and flying and we have nearly 500 private individuals and science researchers signed up and ready to fly. The potential of the industry we are leading is immense but will depend on the continuing emergence of truly safe, affordable and transformative technologies. Burt and Paul’s record in that respect is unmatched. I hope thatin due course, in partnership with Stratolaunch and others, we will be able to repeat the pattern that has worked so spectacularly well in the suborbital sphere, for orbital spaceflight.”

Aside from being mostly about, well, Branson and Virgin Galactic, the press release contains an interesting statement: “We therefore look forward to working closely with Stratolaunch as the project unfolds over the coming years.” Curiously, Virgin Galactic isn’t mentioned as a team member by Stratolaunch, nor did it appear that the company was invited to the press conference. I’ll try to get some clarification on what, precisely, this all involves.

The plane that can’t taxi. The carrier aircraft will be built an tested at the Mojave Air and Space Port. However, the word among Mojave insiders is that the taxiways there can’t handle an aircraft of that size. Thus, the hanger will have to be build right off the runway.

Mojave’s runways. (Credit: Mojave Air and Space Port)

Can the runway handle the load?  The carrier aircraft will have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds,  a wingspan of 385 feet, and the capacity to carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds. For takeoff and landing, it will require a 12,000 feet long runway.

Mojave’s Runway 12-30 is long enough, although it has weight restrictions far below what is required for the Stratolaunch carrier.

Mojave Runway 12-30
Dimensions12,500 feet long, 200 feet wide
SurfaceConcrete/asphalt, excellent condition
TaxiwaysParallel on southwest side; four exit taxiways
Weight LimitationsSingle wheel: 200,000 lbs
Double wheel: 300,000 lbs
Double tandem: 400,000 lbs
Source: Mojave Air and Space Port

The upper limit of 400,000 lbs. is sufficient to accommodate the operating empty weight of a Boeing 747, which are routinely flown to Mojave’s Boneyard to be scrapped.

It raises an interesting question: your motto is “any orbit, any time” but you’ve got a vehicle so large that you can’t really operate it from very many bases. How much does that limit the advantage of air launch?

Good news, everyone! Another project to work on! When I first heard about  SpaceX’s involvement in this deal, I rolled my eyes. Stratolaunch seemed like the last thing they should be taking on. They’re running years behind on COTS flights. They haven’t launched a single satellite in that massive manifest that they’re constantly talking about. The lack of launches means revenues aren’t coming in. And they’re also trying to develop Falcon Heavy and their Grasshopper suborbital vehicle at the same time.

Upon further reflection, I realized this is probably a good deal for them. SpaceX is a contractor, not a partner, which means they’re not spending their own funds but getting paid for their work, which certainly helps cash flow. The Merlin engines are already developed. The Stratolaunch booster will have four or five Merlins, making it similar to the Falcon 5 that SpaceX originally wanted to develop but skipped to build the Falcon 9.

With the booster technology well in hand, the pacing item is likely to be the carrier aircraft. Stratolaunch will take a while to get going, meaning it likely won’t put much of an immediate strain on SpaceX. That will hopefully allow the company to begin launching its backlog of satellites and cargo delivery missions.

And there’s one other potential benefit….

Is this SpaceX’s third launch site? SpaceX has been conducting a very public search for a third launch site that would be fully commercial, without the range restrictions and government bureaucracy that go with operating out of Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. Everyone has assumed this is a fixed location with traditional launch pad, but what if this is the solution?

I’m speculating here, and I’m not really convinced. There’s a logic in having a solely commercial launch site for the Falcon 9. And there’s probably a number of payloads that Falcon 9 can loft that its smaller, Stratolaunch version cannot lift. Whatever the case, the air-launch system gives SpaceX customers options that they don’t have now.