Stratolaunch Flies!

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Stratolaunch’s colossal rocket-launching Roc aircraft flew for the first time on Saturday over California’s Mojave Desert, fulfilling a dream of its backer, the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Powered by six Boeing 747 engine, the dual fuselage aircraft roared down runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port and soared into the sky a wing that spans 385 ft (117.3 m) in length. The pilots flew over the High Desert for more than two hours before making a low pass over the runway.

The pilots then circled around again and came in for a landing. The giant aircraft touched down on its right landing gear first; after the left gear touched down, Roc appeared to swerve several times as it slowed to a stop.

The landing on the right gear first was reportedly due to a crosswind of about 5 knots that was blowing from the east. Winds from the east are a relatively rare occurrence in Mojave.

During a press call, Stratolaunch said the flight lasted 150 minutes during which the aircraft reached a maximum of 15,000 feet and a top speed of 189 mph.

Backed by Allen and built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, the aircraft is designed to air-launch satellites using boosters carried on the wing between its two fuselages. After the flight test program is completed, Stratolaunch plans to initially use Pegasus XL boosters built by Northrop Grumman.

Whether the Roc will launch any other rockets is unclear. The company had plans to develop a series of boosters to serve a broad range of customers. However, those projects were canceled in January, three months after Allen passed away from cancer in October 2018.

Air-launched boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

At that same time, Stratolaunch laid off about 50 employees. A small team remained to complete the Roc‘s flight test program and a rocket launch.

Allen and Rutan had unveiled plans for the air-launch system in December 2011. At that time, SpaceX was going to build a smaller version of its Falcon 9 booster for the aircraft. However, that deal was canceled and Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman) took over the job of developing a medium-lift rocket.

However, that agreement ended as well. Stratolaunch subsequently said it would use Pegasus XL for initial launches while it developed a fleet of boosters. That plan was changed three months ago, leaving only the Pegasus XL.

Pegasus XL is a small satellite launcher that is air launched by a modified L-1011 aircraft that parked right down the Mojave flight line from Stratolaunch’s hangar. It is a much smaller booster than Roc was designed to launch. The company has talked about launching three Pegasus rockets on a single flight.

Allen’s sister, Jody, was named executor of the estate after her brother died in October. With Stratolaunch, she was faced with a program that was already running years behind schedule and faced major expenditures in developing boosters to fly ion the aircraft.

It has looked as if the flight test might have taken place earlier in the week. There were notice to airmen (NOTAMs) posted for Wednesday and Thursday. However, the aircraft never moved from its spot in front of its hangar.

Word began leaking out Friday afternoon that a test flight would be conducted the following day. If the goal was to try to keep the flight low key, it didn’t work. The roads around the airport were crowded with spectators to see the maiden flight of Rutan’s and Allen’s massive aircraft. Only a relative handful of people showed up on Wednesday and Thursday.

The flight test corresponded with the annual Mojave Experimental Fly-in, a two-day event during which the ramp is full of airplanes. Those who arrived for the festivities this morning got quite a treat watching the plane’s flight.

Attempts at crowd control in areas outside the airport fence were ineffective. Just before takeoff, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at an area where people had gathered beyond runway 12-30. They attempted to clear the area just as the plane roared down the runway –with no success.

Later they attempted to clear the area on the other side of the airport where spectators had gathered to watch the landing. The initial effort partly succeeded as some people left. By the time the plane landed, however, the area was more crowded with spectators than it was when the deputies had first arrived.