Stratolaunch Plans for First Flight This Summer

Credit: Stratolaunch Systems Corp.

Stratolaunch delivered some good news this week in an very odd manner.

During a briefing for reporters at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Stratolaunch officials said they planned to conduct the first flight of the company’s massive air-launch plane this summer at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Which company officials made these claims? Nobody outside the briefing knows. Reporters who attended were barred from quoting any of them by name.

That is a rather unusual provision to insist upon for a flight test schedule announcement. It’s not clear why none of the executives was willing to put his or her reputation behind the schedule.

Alan Boyle attended the session and has some details for us.

Last December, the plane went through its first runway taxi test at a speed of up to 15 knots (17 mph). In February, the plane returned to Mojave’s runway for a highly successful taxi test that revved the plane up to 40 knots (46 mph).

Now Stratolaunch has three more ground-based taxi tests on its agenda, at speeds stepping up to 70 knots (81 mph), 85 knots (98 mph) and 120 knots (138 mph). That last figure roughly matches the speed that the plane would need for takeoff.

If all goes well, that would open the way for a “first flight” during the summer months. A series of flight tests would have to be conducted as part of what’s typically an 18- to 24-month process for gaining airworthiness certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Only then will Stratolaunch be in a position to start midflight rocket launches.

That timeline suggests that Stratolaunch’s “first launch” would take place no earlier than 2020.

The massive airplane is set to launch Pegasus XL boosters. It’s an unusual choice for two reasons. First, the rocket is designed for small satellites, so it is rather undersized for the aircraft.

Second, the rocket’s manufacturer, Orbital ATK, already has a L-1011 aircraft that it uses to launch the booster that is located just down the Mojave flight line from where the Stratolaunch airplane is housed.

Stratolaunch is working on developing other boosters to launch from the giant aircraft, which has a wingspan of 385 ft (128 m).