Stratolaunch Scales Back Booster Plans, Lays Off Employees

Air-launched boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Alan Boyle reports that Stratolaunch is laying off about 50 employees and has dumped plans for development of a series of new air-launched boosters (seen in picture above). The decision comes three months after the death of Paul Allen, who is funding a project being led by Northrop Grumman’s Scaled Composites.

The company said it would continue work on the world’s largest airplane, which is designed to serve as a flying launch pad for rockets. Last week, Stratolaunch put its 385-foot-wide, twin-fuselage plane through a high-speed taxi test that many saw as a precursor for its first test flight at Mojave Air and Space Port.

“Stratolaunch is ending the development of their family of launch vehicles and rocket engine. We are streamlining operations, focusing on the aircraft and our ability to support a demonstration launch of the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL air-launch vehicle,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We are immensely proud of what we have accomplished and look forward to first flight in 2019.”

Employees were told today that more than 50 people were being laid off as a result of the streamlining strategy, according to two sources who aren’t employed by Stratolaunch but are familiar with the operation. The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told GeekWire that about 20 employees were staying on to work on the plane and prepare for the flight test.

The Pegasus XL is a small satellite booster capable of carrying 443 kg (977 lb) to orbit. The rocket often carries government payloads and flies infrequently; it has flown only five times in the last 11 years.Pegasus XL is currently launched by a modfied L-1011 aircraft that is parked just down the taxiway from where the Stratolaunch plane is housed at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The Pegasus XL’s low production rate has driven up the cost of the booster. NASA is paying approximately $56.3 million for the launch of its Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission, which is scheduled for later this year. The price “includes the firm-fixed launch service costs, spacecraft processing, payload integration, tracking, data and telemetry and other launch support requirements,” the agency said in a press release.

It is not clear whether Stratolaunch will be contracting with any other companies to produce additional boosters for the aircraft. It previously pursued projects with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems). Neither of those efforts came to fruition.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    That’s a shame. I had a feeling Paul’s death would gut this company, and that appears to be the case. Hope they can at least put that giant plane to good use…doing something.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    Perhaps in the future, if 2019 is a good year for Virgin Galactic, they would buy this plane for a even bigger SpaceShip3, and this would be it’s white knight 3.

  • Cameron

    Looks like the beginning of the end for Stratolaunch. The way I read their ‘demonstration launch’ of the Pegasus, it will likely be a one-off. Frankly there is no reason to do another.

  • Terry Stetler

    Perhaps build the cargo pod shown in their original concept. Problem: the runway requirements.

  • Douglas Messier

    They’ve had 7 years (since they came out of stealth, longer before that) to get their act together on the booster. They’ve got Pegasus and some rockets still years away from flying that will require substantial investment. What’s the market going to be when they get those things flying? The whole project is already years behind schedule.

    Similar to mistake Rutan made with SpaceShipTwo. Didn’t have the rocket figured out before they built the flying machine. He didn’t learn anything.

  • Cameron

    Yes, it is a common theme through the history of aviation. Good airframes are useless without a suitable engine. Engines on paper don’t count.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is too bad. It’s sad since Paul Allen really wanted to move space technology forward, but he fell in with Burt Rutan who didn’t have a clue about rockets viewing everything as a X-15 spin off.

  • Robert G. Oler

    lol

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    AN-124’s and the AN-225 keep getting work. A cargo module might give this plane a life.

  • Cameron

    Maybe, but it’s extreme span and gear width will severely restrict where it can operate.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    It’s about time the joke of jokes, that is air launch, flops into the garbage can of history.

  • Robert G. Oler

    there seem to be quite a few factors at work here…no engine, no market, and no product which offers a substantial cost advantage to create a market

    it will be interesting to see where the next year or so takes “commercial space” but the early warning signs of a repeat of the stall out of the late 1980’s are there

    after a lot of hype about “new space” brought on by hopes of the space shuttle system dramatically lowering cost and increasing access…well nothing happened. the government money being spent went into things that were meaningless…SDI and the emerging space station…things that in the end didnot do much to advance private industry

    its hard to see, other than military launch on demand that this product has any unique characteristics that substantially lower cost.

    across the board some early signs of commercial space stallout are occurring as the “hype” never quite seems to match the reality. Both of Musk companies (only one space related) are under enormous financial pressure and shedding people

    we will see. but if the only thing that this airplane does if fly three pegasus rockets at a time…its time to start looking for what museum will take it. the operational cost of it have to be higher then even the L1011 currently in use (and those must be astronomical)

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is not how the Wall Street analysts see Tesla. But then someone use to the old government contractor paradigm wouldn’t understand the idea of productivity increases resulting in lower prices and greater competitive advantage.

  • Robert G. Oler

    https://www.marketwatch.com/story/tesla-stock-tanks-as-layoffs-profit-comment-ignite-demand-fears-2019-01-18

    esla is entering a ‘fork in the road’ situation that will ultimately
    define the future of the company for years to come,” with production of
    mid-tier and base Model 3s ramping up as electric-vehicle tax credits
    roll off in the U.S., pressuring demand, Dan Ives at Wedbush said in a
    note Friday.
    I dont think I was commenting on how walstreet sees Tesla…but rather the commercial space “boom”

  • Jeff2Space

    True, but other countries with very high gas taxes will likely continue to import US built Teslas even as low US gasoline prices impact domestic demand for EVs and hybrids.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Or Telsa will build new factories those nations to avoid their high tariffs on imported vehicles.

    https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/06/teslas-china-factory-set-to-begin-production-late-next-year.html

    Tesla’s China factory is set to begin production late next year, Shanghai government says

  • patb2009

    well maybe you could drop the cargo…

    The question would be the vehicle range fully loaded.

  • patb2009

    I’d say Burt underappreciated the challenges in propulsion development.
    Every aircraft he ever built had a pretty mature engine. When he got outside his
    experience it bit him

  • patb2009

    depends… If you buy a lot of Pegasi, they have to be a good deal.

    That salvo launch of 3 pegasi is sort of the ultimate small launch salvo.

  • mike shupp

    I’m mumbling to myself a bit about viewing “new space” through purely economic eyes.

    Who’s the typical “purchaser” of spacecraft these days, after all? Maybe a Vice President at AT&T looking at estimates of future comsat usage — not exactly the same as a housewife squeezing lemons at Krogers. Maybe a US Congressman asking himself if conservative voters in his hometown will try to oust him in the next primary if he votes for spending three billion dollars over the next twenty years on climate monitoring spacecraft? A VFW post taking in $20,000 of contributions from the members to finance shipping 2 ounces of the previous leader’s ashes into space because everybody loved him and he was a huge Star Trek fan? A European politician mumbling to himself that building a lunar settlement would do more for the economic health and political sanity of the continent than constant debate about accepting Muslim refugees?

    What’s Adam Smith got to say about this kind of “market”? What did Keynes say? What did Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman say? Or Paul Krugman or Gregory Minkow? I mean … once upon a time, we built a couple hundred nuclear attack submarines just to wipe out the Soviet Union, because everyone in American just knew that was what a free market economy demanded, and now we all understand there isn’t and shouldn’t be ANYTHING but economics to decide what human beings should do about anything, we’re all agreed on this whether liberal or conservative, so what should we do? what does the science of economics DEMAND that our space programs do?

  • windbourne

    Sad thing is, that his sister took control. I am sure that Paul likely said go with it, and she is now gutting things in a fashion that he would not want.

  • windbourne

    good idea.
    I wonder what payloads are on WK2 vs this.

  • Robert G. Oler

    maybe but I dont see any of that happening

  • windbourne

    Yup. So, it will be limited to places like military bases, Kennedy, Denver, etc.

  • Robert G. Oler

    and very expensive the operating cost of this airplane must be enormous

  • Robert G. Oler

    yeah and at 40K USD there are a lot of Chinese who will buy them LOL

  • windbourne

    uh no. they are doing the base one and using chinese battery/parts. The battery will probably cost more, but the parts will likely be cheaper.
    And this is the 35K model.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I hope it works out Boeing got hosed with Chinese production but …there are a lot of Chinese who can crank out 35K 🙂

  • windbourne

    whoa, wait. WTF????
    I did not hear about Boeing issues.
    I assume you are talking the 787 tail that they allowed CHina to do. Yes?
    So, what happened?

  • Robert G. Oler

    it was a mistake to farm out anything to the Chinese who had no stake in success they just wanted the composite knowledge

  • windbourne

    Right. But are you aware of any issues?

    Keep in mind, that the outsourcing that mcnearny did was a disaster at every place that idiot worked. He is just another foolish MBA without a single brain cell.

  • Robert G. Oler

    You wont find me defending him.

  • publiusr

    That might have been the idea from the get go. Can’t wait to see the bunker buster this thing was really meant for.

  • windbourne

    Huh?
    What?
    I’m missing something. What does runway lengths have to do with bombs?

  • nomo bo

    Well, first this turkey must demonstrate that it can actually fly, not just taxi. And that will not end well.