Will Stratolaunch Have its Wings Clipped?

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

During the New Space Conference in July, I asked Vulcan Aerospace President Chuck Beames whether the company had made a fundamental mistake with Stratolaunch Systems. Shouldn’t it have figured out what sort of air-launch rocket it was going to use first before building the world’s largest aircraft to launch it from?

By then, the company had already ended agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) to build the booster.  In fact, Vulcan had ended its agreement with Orbital about a year previously, and it had not announced a replacement booster.

Beames denied they had made a mistake with Microsoft Founder Paul Allen’s latest space project. He also said they had identified a new launcher and would be announcing it in the fall.

This morning, Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal quotes Beames as saying the program is being re-evaluated.

Chuck Beames, president of closely held Vulcan Aerospace and one of Mr. Allen’s top lieutenants, said the entire project is being reassessed to determine “what’s the best way forward,” though he declined to provide any details.

Calling it “an unprecedented undertaking,” Mr. Beames said the high-risk in initiative “takes time to develop and our intention is to be thorough in all our processes.” He said the project hasn’t been shelved, adding that Mr. Allen remains committed to transforming space transportation by serving a wide range of customers and starting service before the end of the decade. But “we’re not prepared to announce or comment publicly [about] timelines,” Mr. Beames said….

In recent years, the market has shifted dramatically toward smaller, lighter satellites, prompting the remaining Stratolaunch team to work come up with revised engineering, marketing and business plans. Taxi tests with the aircraft may begin next year. But Mr. Beames said he won’t make any decisions until “I’ve completed the assessment.”

A number of aerospace industry officials familiar with the project have raised doubts about its direction. Smaller, lighter satellites don’t need such a large, complex system to get into low-earth orbit, they said, pointing to less expensive alternatives such as hitching a ride on existing rockets that blast off from traditional launchpads to hoist big payloads into high-earth orbit.

Stratolaunch has always been a somewhat mysterious project. Skeptics have questions how competitive it would be with launch vehicles of a similar class. There has been a lot of speculation that the system was being developed primarily to loft military satellites because of its ability to launch payloads to any orbital inclination.

The story states that the carrier aircraft is 40 percent complete. It also notes the company’s website consists of a single page with a photo of the aircraft being built and a message saying the website is under construction. The website was much more extensive in the past.

The aircraft is being fabricated and assembled at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The program employs a large work force from Scaled Composites and BAE Systems.

The enormous size of the carrier aircraft — which will have a wingspan of 385 and be powered by six 747 engines — has spurred unflattering comparisons to Howard Hughes’ massive Spruce Goose, a giant cargo plane that flew only once.  The Stratolaunch aircraft has been dubbed Carbon Goose and Birdzilla.