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.