Stratolaunch is 40 Percent Complete

The new design of Stratolaunch's carrier aircraft. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
The new design of Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

The Seattle Seahawks may have lost the Super Bowl because of an idiotic call on the goal line in the waning seconds, but billionaire owner Paul Allen can take comfort in two things:

He still has billions of dollars. And Birdzilla.

Speaking of which, Stratolaunch System’s giant carrier aircraft is 40 percent complete:

Scaled Composites President Kevin Mickey confirmed the progress in an email Tuesday from that company’s headquarters in Mojave, Calif., where the aircraft is being built….

The wings and fuselage of the 1.3 million-pound Stratolaunch will be new, and about 80 percent of the assemblies are complete, Mickey said….

Progress on the aircraft seems so far to be steady. The first flight is still scheduled for 2016, the same date the company earlier indicated.

If that remains the case, the aircraft is supposed to finish certification flights and launch its first space craft by 2018.

Read the full story.

  • Paul451

    “abort – return to airport” procedure […] In other words – how do you land, with this thing still under the wings?

    In theory, if it can take off, it can land. For safety, yes, you want to dump the fuel.

    From what I understand, Stratolauncher has fuel pumps on the carrier to both fuel the launcher only after the carrier is airborne, and dump that fuel for an “abort to airport”.

    only achieves a small fraction (about 3%) of the required orbital insertion speed

    However, thanks to the exponential nature of the rocket equation, that 3% increases your payload by 10%. Or allows a much fatter vehicle MR which lowers development costs. (Rule of thumb, for every 10% increase in mass of a part, you can either double the lifespan or save 50% of development costs.)

    The rocket equation is deceptive, the first 1km/s uses a quarter of your fuel, the last 1km/s uses around 2%. Even people who do this for a living sometimes forget just how costly that first velocity is.

  • Dima Samoilov

    Paul, the air-dropped Pegasus XL, while weighting 50,990 lb, was able to put 976lb into 185 km orbit. That works out to 0.019 mass fraction (let’s be generous and round it to 2%). 🙂
    The last time I’ve checked, that rocket was in the $43 million price range. So, the ‘lb-to-orbit’ works out to slightly over $44,000. Even the shuttle’s $450 million launch cost would equate to about $8,000 per pound.

    (Just stop and think about this for a second.. )

    The proposed Pegasus II is also a 4-stage, all solid rocket, built by the same people that built the original Pegasus. They are just taking the same ‘ol Pegasus and making it much bigger, trying to take advantage of the SLS solid booster work that NASA has given to the ATK.

    You’ve mentioned the rocket equation,a nd I agree with you there. So, where’s that magic with this system? What is going to be Stratolaunch “killer feature” that will justify all the expenses, very tricky logistics, skyrocketing cost of the solid propellant (about $100 per lb and I’ll leave it up to you to do a quick math for the cost of 4 solid stages of the quarter-million pound rocket), even things like the environmental impact (SRB’s punch a pretty big hole in the ozone layer every time they fly), lack of any meaningful rocket reusability and built-in limitations like the lack of cryogenic upper stage and inability to restart the motor?

  • Paul451

    90% of airports won’t allow you to operate there, can’t be FAA licensed for space launch

    While 90% of airports aren’t suitable for Stratolauncher, there are a lot of airports. And a lot of operators suddenly deciding to set up as “spaceports”. Yet very few new launch sites are being built (SpaceX is the exception, as always.)

    Put it another way, every launch pad in the world has a large runway nearby. How many large runways have a launchpad nearby?

    while your carrier is reusable, stage 2-4 aren’t, no real gain in reliability there. Pegasus had reliability issues.

    But its carrier didn’t. The expensive development for Stratolaunch is the carrier. It will be reusable, and repeatedly testable, on day one. That drastically reduces the cost of tests. (You’re not destroying a vehicle for every test flight.)

  • Paul451

    Just to be clear: I’m not a fan of Stratolaunch’s architecture. (It seems an especially convoluted way to achieve what they want.) And I’m definitely not a fan of Pegasus.

  • Hug Doug

    How does the Stratolaunch rocket take advantage of the SLS solid booster work? they’re of an entirely different scale, likely different fuel grain, composition, and geometry.

  • Dima Samoilov

    “Our next segment featured George Torres, Vice President of Communications for the ATK Aerospace Group in Salt Lake City, UT. George talked about the announcement for ATK being awarded the ALV first and second stage contracts for the boosters for the Stratolaunch project. George described the boosters, their proposed capability, and more. We also talked about the high energy solid rocket propellant used by ATK for this project, then I asked George about the five segment booster from the Aries 1 which was cancelled a few years ago. The five segment booster is interchangeable with the sections of the four segment booster used by the shuttle and now these boosters are being used for the SLS. We talked about the upcoming static firing tests for the new SRBs for Stratolaunch and SLS. George then talked about the ATK work in the field of composites and how they are a leader in the industry, doing the composite work for many other companies. He described the ATK Aerospace Group which includes two launch groups, two satellite groups, and the composite group. Before our segment with George ended, we returned to the subject of the five segment booster and SLS, focusing on the previous development motor static tests and the upcoming static firing tests actually being qualification motor tests. Near the end of the segment, George updated us on the Liberty Launch Vehicle. ATK is now positioning Liberty for the cargo market but this will depend on the market for the capacity Liberty offers.”

    Orbital doesn’t innovate, it rides on coattails of others. Both SLS and Stratolaunch solid rocket motors are the same 3.71 meter in diameter.

  • Matt

    Pegasus proves that there is no significant increase in payload mass fraction compared to similar ground launched vehicles.

  • Paul451

    Only in the same way that the shuttle “proved” that vertical take off is unaffordable. Bad systems prove nothing. A solid motor is not the appropriate system for air-launch (unless it’s a weapon system, of course.)

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Antares uses a solid upper stage (Castor). If they have no liquid second stage for Antares, seems unlikely that they’d have one for Pegasus II.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Disadvantages of Birdzilla:
    – for such a large aircraft, there will naturally be only a limited number of runways available
    – since you are carrying a large “munition”, it’s likely that only (some) military airports will be available for fuelled rocket handling
    – Surely range safety starts the moment the rocket is fuelled
    – Your launch pad (i.e. carrier aircraft) is enormously expensive compared to a fixed pad and you are tied to that single pad (carrier aircraft).
    – You are limited by the lift capability of the aircraft in the size of launch system you can employ – heavy solids further exacerbate this issue.
    – Any perceived performance advantages apply only to the purpose made rocket that you are using. Since that rocket is designed for air launch and not ground launch, the performance advantages are designed-in and are NOT really a feature of air launch generally. Ground launch allows the use of larger and more efficient rockets which completely negates the supposed/perceived advantages of air launch.

    Potential advantages mobile launch platforms:
    – Weather avoidance: assuming the aircraft has the necessary range.
    – Avoiding range congestion? – The “liftoff” range may be less restrictive, but might be complicated if you desire/require access to tracking stations.

  • Matt

    I would say a liquid rocket system is even more not appropriate for air-launch, see arguments above in different comments.

  • Matt

    I would say air-launch makes sense, if the launcher mass is very small (lower as 2 tons) and therefore air-resistance is an important factor and if launch response is important.

  • Matt

    “The expensive development for Stratolaunch is the carrier.”

    Expenses, which are not necessary and would better avoided.

  • Dima Samoilov

    Pegasus II is all-solid, when did I say anything to the contrary?

  • Hug Doug

    “The five segment booster is interchangeable with the sections of the four segment booster used by the shuttle and now these boosters are being used for the SLS.”

    actually, that’s not correct, or rather, it’s outdated. the interview you quote is from more than a year and a half ago, and refers to the SRB for the Ares I rocket. ATK had to change the fuel composition, fuel grain, and fuel geometry for the 5 segment SLS booster, it’s no longer interchangeable with the Shuttle SRB design.

    while ATK is definitely at the forefront of solid rocket engine technology, but the SLS 5 segment booster does not really have any direct relationship with the they are developing for Stratolaunch. it will have a different fuel mixture and geometry.

    “The first two stages of the Pegasus II will have the same outside diameter as the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster, but will be constructed using much lighter carbon-composite cases and contain a more energetic propellant mix.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pegasus_II_(rocket)

    “However, unlike the SRBs, Pegasus II’s casings will be much lighter, while the stages will sport additional performance via an updated propellant mix.”

    http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2013/05/stratolaunch-orbital-air-launch/

  • Kirk

    Can I interpolate that Stratolaunch is 40% complete, 40% remaining? Cool! ;^)

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I wasn’t arguing, just sayin’, that’s all.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I wasn’t arguing, just sayin’, that’s all.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “However, thanks to the exponential nature of the rocket equation, that 3% increases your payload by 10%.”
    This is not correct. If the aircraft is travelling at 500mph (approx 3% orbital speed), then you’d be lucky for the rocket to retain half of that. Usually air launch adds no more than 5% payload to orbit over what the same rocket could do from the ground. That comes from reduced low altitude drag and better high altitude performance of the rocket engine. Remember, you aren’t gaining any particular cost or performance advantage from air launch, since you have to adapt a rocket for that specific purpose. A larger rocket using more cheap fuel would get you more payload to orbit and for less cost. Air launch is ALL about eeking out whatever improvement you can from range flexibility.

  • patb2009
  • patb2009

    i would imagine you would dump all the propellant in the rocket.

  • patb2009

    of course this is a solid, so, that’s not easily dropped unless you blew some vent ports on the motor, and let them burn at low rate for an hour or two. That would mean the abort would be a payload problem not an aircraft problem

  • patb2009

    “While 90% of airports aren’t suitable for Stratolaunch, there are a lot of airports. And a lot of operators suddenly deciding to set up as “spaceports”. Yet very few new launch sites are being built (SpaceX is the exception, as always.)”

    You can’t go to “Any Airport” with Stratolaunch. You need a really wide runway and a really big runway, If you look at Mojave, it’s a 12,000×200 concrete runway. That’s not a little grass strip or municipal runway.

    Spaceport America put in a similiar runway, and buildings and that was $200 Million…

    The problem is you need a real big runway with very little nearby. In case you have an accident, you don’t want to kill people within a mile or two.

    That means you need a shutdown SAC base left over from the 80’s that hasn’t built up new users. There are some but in inconvenient locations.

    Mojave, Loring, NTS, Malmstrom….

    The stratolaunch carrier aircraft is impressive, but, it’s expensive. That’s a couple hundred million to build…
    Wow.

    For a lot less money you can build a booster.
    For less money you can buy a booster.

  • patb2009

    true enough, but, the launch windows aren’t the biggest problem. If you miss a launch window, you need to stop, defuel, check the payload, refuel. That’s true even for air launch.

  • Matt

    A misfired solid rocket, hanging at your aircraft, must be dropped fast as possilbe.

  • Matt

    “If you miss a launch window, you need to stop, defuel, check the payload, refuel. That’s true even for air launch.”

    And – in addition – much more complex and hazardous in case of an air-launched vehicle.

  • patb2009

    take a look at a P-38 lightning, i imagine Kelly Johnson knew what
    he was doing there. Look at the F-82 Twin Mustang, again
    a supported tail spar.

    But that’s just my opinion

  • windbourne

    why would that matter?
    Similar to any wing/tube, but just 2 tubes in tandem.

  • Larry J

    You don’t need to defuel if the rocket is solid fueled as is the case for Stratolaunch.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The reality is that a majority are happy living simple lives and just raising a family near where they were born.

    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2008/12/17/who-moves-who-stays-put-wheres-home/

    The graph shows 57% have never lived other than the state they were born in. Only 15% have lived in four or more states. And remember, American is considered as having a very mobile population compared to other nations.

    I expect if they dug down deeper they would find that most of those that did move away from their state were forced by economic necessity, not driven by wanderlust. Bottom line – explorers and pioneers are and always have been a rare breed.

    Also, having done survey research for over 30 years, and teaching it as well, I also expect in that space survey the “90 percent” rule applies. That if that 28% were actually offered a free ride 90% on thinking about it further, and what was involved, would turn it down. Marketers know that without a lot of investment in promotional work founded on detailed behavioral research intentions only rarely turn into actions…

  • ThomasLMatula

    You don’t. Instead, just like a military aircraft with live ordnance you drop it, hopefully into the ocean, presumably in many pieces thanks to a well designed self-destruct system.

  • Dima Samoilov

    Imagine if SpaceX would self-destruct a rocket during terminal count every time there’s some issue preventing launch.