Report: StratoGoose is Cooked

Stratolaunch takes off. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Reuters has confirmed reports that Parabolic Arc has been hearing for months here in Mojave: Stratolaunch’s goose is cooked.

Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, the space company founded by late billionaire and Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen, is closing operations, cutting short ambitious plans to challenge traditional aerospace companies in a new “space race,” four people familiar with the matter said on Friday….

[Parent company] Vulcan has been exploring a possible sale of Stratolaunch’s assets and intellectual property, according to one of the four sources and also a fifth person….

The decision to set an exit strategy was made late last year by Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan Inc and trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, one of the four people and the fifth industry source said.

Jody Allen decided to let the carrier aircraft fly to honor her brother’s wishes and also to prove the vehicle and concept worked, one of the four people said.

Stratolaunch refused to comment on the report. Northrop Grumman — owner of Scaled Composites, the plane’s prime contractor — also refused comment.

The report is consistent with reports that Parabolic Arc has heard in recent months. The air-launch program, which is running years behind schedule, was on shaky ground after Paul Allen died in October. A source reports his sister Jody, who is the executor of the estate, has little interest in the program.

Stratolaunch’s lone flight took place on April 13. The giant plane’s 385-foot long wing created clouds of dust on the sides of runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port as the aircraft roared off the runway powered by six Boeing 747 engines.

The plane, which is nicknamed the Roc, stayed aloft for 2.5 hours before landing back at the Mojave Desert spaceport. The pilots reported that the aircraft flew exactly as advertised.

When Allen and Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan unveiled plans for the gigantic aircraft in December 2011, the plan was to have the first operational launch in 2016. Production of the massive aircraft lagged, however.

Stratolaunch’s other key problem was finding a booster to air launch that was worthy of the plane’s enormous size. First SpaceX and then Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Northrop Grumman) were hired to build a medium-lift booster. Both agreements ended without a rocket being built.

Air-launched boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Stratolaunch eventually settled on Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL small satellite booster as an interim solution while the company developed its own series of rockets, including a reusable space plane.

The boosters would have taken years to develop, pushing the launch of larger payloads into the early 2020’s. In January, Jody Allen canceled the launcher program.

That decision left the Roc with only the Pegasus XL as a launch vehicle. The Northrop Grumman rocket is expensive, flies infrequently and already has a launch aircraft — a modified L-1011 named Stargazer — that is parked right down the Mojave flight line from Roc‘s hangar. With a new generation of small-satellite launch vehicles being developed, the future of the Pegasus XL is uncertain.

Roc’s enormous size resulted in comparisons to Howard Hughes’ enormous H-4 Hercules sea plane, which was designed during World War II to ferry troops and supplies across the ocean.

The prototype, built of wood and nicknamed the Spruce Goose, flew once with Hughes at the controls in November 1947. It never flew again; the H-4 was never put into production.

The plane disappeared from public view for decades until after Hughes’ death in 1976. The Spruce Goose went on public display in Long Beach, California, near where it flew for the only time. It is now housed at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

What fate awaits the Roc remains to be seen. Perhaps the owners will find a buyer interested in using it for something.