Release the Kraken: Stratolaunch Ramps Up Plans for Flights

Air-launched boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Wired has an entertaining story by Steven Levy about what Paul Allen and the team at Scaled Composites have been doing with Stratolaunch, whose enormous carrier plane nicknamed the Roc but also know as Composite Goose, Carbon Goose, Birdzilla and Stratosaurus.

As you might recall, Stratolaunch originally had deals with SpaceX and then Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) to build the carrier rocket the airplane would air launch. Neither of those worked out, so the company talked to everyone in the industry with a rocket or an idea for one before settling on Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL.

Pegasus XL wasn’t a long-term solution, however. For once, it already had a carrier aircraft — a L-1011 jetliner named Stargazer — that was parked just down the Mojave flight line from the Stratolaunch hangar. Second, it was an expensive booster only capable of lofting small satellites into Earth orbit — not a great fit for an aircraft with a 385 foot wingspan even if you launch three of them on a single flight.

A larger booster was needed. But what? They had already talked to everyone. It looked bad….

But then the company’s engineers realized that new technologies, especially 3-D printing, would be more efficient. “You can just print these engines almost from scratch for so much less,” Allen says, estimating that a new engine can be printed for about a fifth of the cost of repurposing space shuttle overstock. Strato­launch formed a team of rocket designers, led by SpaceX’s former head of propulsion, Jeff Thornburg. The company will test its engines at a NASA facility in Stennis, Mississippi.

Sharing their road map publicly for the first time, Thornburg and [CEO Jean] Floyd laid out their plans for Stratolaunch: Its first custom rocket ship will be considerably bigger than the Pegasus, able to transport multiple satellites or other payloads. This medium-size rocket is nicknamed Kraken, after the legendary Icelandic sea monster. Floyd says customers will be able to use it to get satellites into low Earth orbit for less than $30 million, a competitive price and about half of what SpaceX charges for a launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Floyd estimates that Kraken will be operational in 2022.

But, there’s more. Stratolaunch wasn’t built just to launch boring old communications satellites. That’s not what Burt Rutan had in mind when he conceived it.

The next steps are more ambitious. In a project codenamed Black Ice, Stratolaunch is designing reusable space planes that will take off from the big airplane and go into orbit. The first one will be programmed to open its bay doors once in orbit and release its payload, perhaps even a fleet of satellites, into space. And then it will return to Earth. The idea is not all that different from the original space shuttle, which was a reusable vehicle that could also steer itself down from orbit to land on a runway. It can “come back and land at Mojave where the plane is waiting, the fuel system is waiting,” Floyd says. “You roll up underneath the plane, you refuel, you put the next payload in, and you go again.” Finally, Stratolaunch aims to build a second version of Black Ice that can carry astronauts. That ship won’t be flying for at least a decade.

Every time I’ve had the jaw-dropping experience of seeing that plane, I have a recurring vision. The massive thing just keeps rolling down runway 12-30, all 12,0503 ft of it, before getting about five feet off the ground, slamming into the airport’s exterior fence and then shattering into a million pieces on the railroad embankment just beyond it.

This happens to be the area where photographer Ken Brown and I typically capture Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo as it takes off with SpaceShipTwo. So, I had pretty much made up my mind that we would not be there whenever Stratolaunch tries to take to the air.

However, Levy discovered that taking off may be the least of Stratolaunch’s problems when he did a simulator run with chief test pilot Chris Guarente, also known as Duff.

“Every objective you have during that flight is based on ‘What do I need to do to know I can land this airplane,’ ” says Duff, who flew F-16s in the military. On Stratolaunch’s maiden voyage, the pilots won’t even retract the landing gear. “It’s just one more thing that could go wrong,” Duff tells me. He repeats once more, as if I’d missed it, “The mission is to familiarize the pilot and make sure the airplane is capable of landing.”

I mention that it’s a bit alarming to hear him talk about the plane’s ability to land in the conditional. “We do believe it is capable of landing,” Duff says. “But this is the first time you find out if it really is.”

One tricky part of the landing, Scaled’s [Matthew] Stinemetze says, might be handling a touchdown from one side of an awkward two-fuselage configuration. “You can touch that other boom down before you’re on the ground, so there’s all these weird things that can happen,” he says.

That’s good to know. It will definitely help inform my decisions about where exactly watch the first flight of this behemoth.