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).

  • Terry Rawnsley

    That thing still hasn’t flown?

  • Dave Erskine

    The use of a conservative approach to testing is as it should be with this one-of-a-kind aircraft. No plan for series production, so let it march to this beat. Our expections for development and inovation are these days are just crazy fast. Some leaders of industry and politics engage mouth before brains al la POTUS. Less scary when the Billionare Rocket Boys posit….they don’t have nukes….. So let Stratolaunch management duff-it….The Roc rolls, and soon wings. My 12 YO self delights!

  • Geoff T

    I’ve said it several times but I still foresee a pivot to using this plane for outsize cargo transport like the AN-225 eventually. Strap a Thunderbirds style cargo pod between those twin fuselages and you could probably move some pretty interesting items about. Certainly more interesting than marketing it for Pegasus launches nobody wants.

  • Michael Halpern

    Pegasus is a temp rocket..

  • Geoff T

    After 7 years of development since they came out of stealth still talking about “temporary rockets” seems ridiculous. They’ve burned through several partnerships with proven launcher manufacturers and at the end of that all they have to announce is the ability to launch a rocket there’s no commercial interest in to begin with.

  • Michael Halpern

    Except there is, same interest that electron has, they are looking at a reusable rocket, their fall out with SpaceX was in part because of SpaceX’s ambition.

  • Geoff T

    Pegasus has launched only 4 times in the last decade and only has one scheduled launch coming up. Electron has launched twice in a year and has 9 scheduled launches on the manifest.

  • Michael Halpern

    Pegasus is just being used for validation once it gets something into orbit they will get a lot of investment

  • ThomasLMatula

    With Paul Allen funding the venture they don’t really need any investment. And if it fails commercially because it’s based on an outdated idea he has a nice museum waiting for it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem is that like all Russian cargo aircraft the AN-225 is able to land at most airports. The number of airfield the Stratolauncher could use is more limited. But a big cargo pod would open up options for it.

  • Michael Halpern

    In addition, Orbital doesn’t really market Pegasus and Stratolaunch can easily get savings on a block buy, size wise it isn’t too different from their main products, another thing to consider when Pegasus XL was first developed, small sats didn’t really have a market, making the rocket a small launcher before there was a market for small launchers. They haven’t secured contracts yet largely because they probably have to finish negotiations with Orbital and figure out how many they have to buy for the rocket cost to be reasonable from a business perspective for them.

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes, depending on structural limits to lift capacity, you would of course like with other large cargo air drop craft, need to clear out AA first, but it could feasibly carry a pre fabricated small air dropped forward operating base,

  • Michael Halpern

    True, but then there’s his black ice project idea, that sounds like it could be a fully reusable light to medium lift vehicle, which certainly can find a niche if operating costs are low enough and it flies frequently, Pegasus does make a good test bed for the system as its something known to work

  • Jeff2Space

    You might want to re-read some history of the early years of aircraft. Actually, from the Wright Brothers to WW-I to WW-II and through most of the Cold War progress in aerospace was “fast and furious”. Periods like the century series of aircraft amaze me. During that era, aircraft became “obsolete” almost as quickly as they could be produced and deployed.

    Somewhere along the way (1970s by my reckoning), the progress in US aerospace slowed greatly.

  • Jeff2Space

    Nope.

  • Michael Halpern

    During the 1970s, on the slower side your main market was passenger liners, it didn’t make sense to drastically change production lines frequently or retrain pilots often with the regular business there, in fact due to those market forces large passenger liners got slower to conserve fuel. Military side it has become less about the aircraft and more about their various systems, largely due to technology maturation.

  • Jeff2Space

    Which kind of shows that the likes of ULA, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and etc. thought that launch technology was matured. SpaceX, and to a lesser extent Blue Origin, are showing that launch technology still has a very long way to go until it’s truly mature.

  • Michael Halpern

    Even aircraft technology isn’t truly mature its just significantly matured for now and future developments will have to depend on technology developed outside the industry finding use in aircraft, another example of a matured technology suddenly seeming to have a lot of maturity to go is Automotive thanks to Tesla, while there are electric aircraft, they won’t really evolve the tech outside of short range, sport, trainer and possibly Cessna type aircraft, and rideable drone stuff is its own thing for now

  • Michael Halpern

    Small launchers are also showing different niches that didn’t exist and maturing in manufacturing techniques

  • windbourne

    Ba-330? Ba-2100! Oh yeah

  • windbourne

    It might have to do with orbital atk charging $50 M to launch less than .5 tonne.
    After all, that makes it one of the most expensive launch in.terms of $ / kg.

  • windbourne

    Nope. All R&D in America slowed in the 80s due to Reagan. He killed huge amounts of funding for civilian R&D.

  • duheagle

    Flick says he saw some grizzly bears near Pulaski’s candy store the other day.

  • JS Initials

    I thought of something. I wonder if Paul Allen and his advisers have thought of the same thing? Why not fit a streamlined container/magazine between the fuselages?
    The container/magazine could hold maybe a half-dozen Pegasus-type launchers.
    A six shooter…In one hour the Stratolaunch could launch 1/2 dozen winged satellite launchers into LEO.

  • Michael Halpern

    Complex movement and areodynamics on an already complex, large high altitude aircraft… A bomb bay type system would be a safer bet

  • Michael Halpern

    Also you need clearance behind the rocket