Stratolaunch Dumps Orbital ATK Rocket as Aircraft Encounters Problems

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

Stratolaunch Systems has quietly dumped Orbital ATK’s rocket from its air-launch system:

As recently as last fall, Beames spoke about a plan to put a human-crewed spacecraft developed by Sierra Nevada on the tip of the Orbital booster rocket.

But now that human spaceflight plan is shelved, along with Orbital’s planned rocket.

Beames said Orbital’s rocket “was not hitting the economic sweet spot to generate revenue,” so Vulcan has reopened the design plan and is “evaluating over 70 different launch vehicle variants.”

This shift won’t affect the timetable for flying the carrier plane, he said, but it could mean “maybe a little delay” in the plans to use it to launch spacecraft into orbit.

Launching a manned spacecraft will be even further out, “in 10 years,” he said.

The change is reflected in the Stratolaunch website, which is now under construction and contains a single page with a photo of the carrier aircraft under construction in the conmpany’s Mojave hangar.

Meanwhile, reports out of Mojave indicate that building a twin fuselage aircraft with 385-foot wing span is turning out to be a lot more difficult than engineers thought. Word is they’re experiencing all sorts of problems.

Credit: Douglas Messier
Credit: Douglas Messier

Thinking big is not a problem. Building big is. They could end up regretting this boast.

  • windbourne

    Kind of sad.
    Hopefully, allen can get a launch system to work out.

  • James

    Literally everything you listed was caused by the people who vote the politicians into office.

  • Vladislaw

    They are utilizing six engines, landing gear and avionics from the 747’s was my understanding

  • Gary Warburton

    Yes, it really doesn`t make sense other than the ability to launch where and when you want. What is more Mr. Allen began demanding spaceX use bigger and less engines which didn`t fit with SpaceX`s plans of engine-out capabilities and using three to one engines for landing purposes. It would have meant retooling his plant at great expense and building a new engine. I don`t think Mr.Allen cared about re-useability either. I suppose the explosion at orbital didn`t help Orbital`s desirability either.

  • Vladislaw

    I agree Bigelow stated before SpaceX dragon for cargo.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Orbital Sciences is a good example, as well as the other :”Old” space firms. NASA is still in the process of assimilating SpaceX, while BO appears to have broken free and is on the commercial, as opposed to contractor, pathway again.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I have long advocated closing NASA, splitting its SMD between NOAA and NSF. Its aviation work could be reconstituted as a small stand alone department under the FAA located at Dryden/Armstrong. But it brings too much pork into the Congress Critters Districts that have centers in them for that to have any chance of being achieved, combined with the memories the baby boomers have of NASA from the Apollo era.

  • ThomasLMatula

    No, SLS and Orion are NASA’s flagship projects, that is why they received more funding by Congress this year while CCP, forced on NASA by good meaning but naive New Space advocates, had its funding cut again. But Dragon has been SpaceX’s flagship from the start.

    Yes, that is/was SpaceX’s vision, but then it was also Orbital’s vision when they were founded in 1982. Time, and government contracts, have a way of eroding visions into profits and ROI.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Ah yes, DragonLab, first promised for 2011. When again is the first flight? And does the Biotech industry, that works on research cycles measured in weeks, even care about it anymore? Just another broken promise to them by the space industry.

    Also check your research. An unmanned version of Dragon, Red Dragon, was offered to NASA for a Mars mission in 2018, but didn’t get the NASA funding. But it was never considered by anyone other than a few bloggers for a lunar mission. The only other source for that story is a Guardian article that confused the Falcon 9 launch vehicle Astrobotic was suppose to use to reach the Moon this October with the Dragon instead of Astrobotic’s own Griffin Lander. Needless to say, no money means no Astrobotic landing this October, which is why the Google X-Prize had to be extended once again.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Their launch manifest is here.

    But as a closely held firm no public numbers are available other than those that government(s) report for any contracts with SpaceX. You might also get some figures from public owned firms it does business with by going to EDGAR. But really any estimates of its revenue from different sources, and how it is spent, would be guess work.

  • Kam Chuanhui

    Cost and reliability as rightly pointed out by yourself is fundamental to any launch business. What I was questioning is why is this still being addressed now, when they are so deep into the project and construction? The economics should have been dealt with early on before they started. With the Goose under construction, technical parameters have already been set which limits the choice of the carrier rocket.

    That they are trying to shoehorn a rocket design to fit their business plan/cost/reliability at this stage now and at least two companies failed suggest that the team isn’t thinking hard enough and under estimated the challenges.

  • Tannia Ling

    The original plan was to use existing fuselages. That quickly gave way to custom fuselages.

  • Tannia Ling

    Liquids and horizontal launch don’t mix.

  • Dennis Ray Wingo

    Geez, imaging Dynetics having problems with all those folks from the Ares program there…

  • B-Sabre

    It pretty much is from scratch – but they are cannibalizing two 747’s for parts. Given the mission, you probably couldn’t expect to take two 747s with a new interplane between them to do the job – the stresses would be so far out from what the designers originally planned….

  • James

    And all that would do?….

    You lose the glamour and draw of NASA for engineers and such and instead combine the problems by making 1 entity into multiple separate entities which will then each have their own problems which will cost more than NASA does now.


    As long as the people vote these guys into office and push these things you can have nothing. And we already discussed why this won’t change.

    You seem to think the problem is that NASA is to blame when its the entire culture of the US government and the government is voted into office by a public largely unaware of those things outside its interest.

    So if a district with 50,000-500,000 people votes in a congressmen/senator and tells them they want to keep the over all redundant and unnecessary plant open because it provides 2,000 jobs to the district….well guess what happens.

  • James

    The question is can it Land with that cargo. I am not sure if it was configured for a landing with the load still attached.

  • patb2009


  • patb2009

    As I recall the early plan was to use a Modified Falcon 5, but that launcher was cancelled by SpaceX. I suspect that and an inability to align the business case and the two entities moved on.

  • patb2009

    High Speed Rejected Takeoff probably is some 80% of max landing weight…

  • Dave Salt

    The vast majority of the technology/cost challenge of any air-launch system reside within the rocket that performs the bulk of the work needed to place any payload into orbit. Any venture that ignores this fundamental fact is therefore doomed to failure.

    Another point of note is that air-launch provides unique advantages that are best suited to RLVs, rather than ELVs, which is why no current air-launch system has proved successful .

    A final point of note is that unless the air-launch system’s payload performance needs to be significantly larger than 10t to LEO, existing aircraft (e.g. 747-400) can be adapted to serve as the ‘zero-stage’ and so the need for something the size of Stratolaunch seems rather questionable.

  • tdperk

    “NASA is still in the process of assimilating SpaceX”
    Care to place a bet on that?

  • tdperk

    Anyone who physically wants to go to LEO, for any reason.
    That’s lots of groups besides NASA. That SpaceX would do something like Dragon was a given.

  • tdperk

    “And does the Biotech industry, that works on research cycles measured in weeks”
    Decades, not weeks.
    “even care about it anymore?”
    They’ll use when it gets here.
    “Just another broken promise to them by the space industry.”
    NASA and the costplus thieves could have done technically in 1965 what Spacex finally did almost 50 years later. I’ll take how SpaceX delivers on it’s promises over how NASA did any day.

  • Ruri Hoshino

    I wonder if the BE-3 appearing on the market has anything to do with the change?
    A rocket with 4 BE-3s with high altitude nozzles in the first stage would lift much more then the rocket OSC proposed.
    The system’s capability would go from Delta II class to EELV class payloads simply because of the higher ISP and better mass fractions.

  • AKA_Lucky

    XCOR? Now that’s funny. Talk about someone who hasn’t done anything yet.

  • Jade Mann

    1. Is it rigid enough during takeoff when you have two sets of wheels possibly not perfectly aligned?
    2. Is it rigid enough inflight without tail joined, could it start vibrating or oscillating?
    3. How far away does an exploding rocket need to be to prevent loss of the aircraft?
    I spent hours trying to find answers to these questions and not one single so called article even asks the first question anyone wants to know… crazy.