Stratolaunch lays the groundwork while refining its aircraft design

A little over two months ago a new company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch Systems, shook up the space industry with plans to develop the world’s largest airplane to perform air launches of a medium-sized rocket. After that initial burst of publicity the company faded from view, but it has remained busy laying the groundwork for, and tweaking the design of, its innovative system, an official with one of Stratolaunch’s partners said last week.

“As we move forward, we’re focused a lot on the technical issues right now,” said Jim Halsell, a former astronaut who is currently the technical director of the space division of Dynetics, one of the companies working with Stratolaunch Systems, in a talk at the FAA’s 15th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, DC, last Thursday. Halsell gave an overview and status update about the Stratolaunch system, including offering a few new details.

The focus for Stratolaunch right now is laying the foundation—figuratively and literally—for its launch system. That includes a groundbreaking last month of a facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to build its gargantuan airplane. “There’s a squadron of earthmoving machines laying the foundation for the manufacturing facility and the tee hangar in which the aircraft will be manufactured,” he said. Halsell also revealed that Stratolaunch has taken delivery of the first of two 747 aircraft, which the company separately announced last week. Those planes will be disassembled so that parts, including their engines and landing gear, can be used for the custom-designed Stratolaunch plane. Halsell added the second 747 would arrive “soon”.

Stratolaunch’s plane, with its dual-fuselage design and giant wingspan, has attracted the most attention. “Our technical challenge, clearly, is to build something as light as possible, empty-weight wise, so as to maximize the payload capability that we can offer,” Halsell said. Scaled Composites is working to make “a design that closes” by the time manufacturing begins this summer on the initial elements of the plane, the wing spar and wing box.

However, he said the designs released in December are still being modified. “Even now, as we’re doing the systems trades and perfecting the carrier aircraft design, I would share with you that it’s going to move away from looking like two 747s that were pasted together, because that was a fairly early—not inappropriate, but more conceptual—design,” he said. The basic elements of the plane, including the dual fuselages and long, straight wing, will remain, though. “Stand by for further refinement of the design, but when you see it, it’ll all make sense.”

One thing Halsell declined to talk about in detail was the business case for the system, including what the company planned to charge for launches. “We can bring our costs into a very competitive range” with a sufficient tempo of launches, he suggested. “We now have something that we believe will be extremely competitive with the medium-launch market.”

He suggested, though, that Paul Allen—who is putting in an initial investment of perhaps several hundred million dollars into Stratolaunch—has reasons beyond simply financial ones for supporting development of this air-launch system. “Our primary investor, Paul Allen, was drawn to this project because he’s at a point in his life where he wants to be involved in projects that not only make good business sense,” Halsell said, “but also, he wants to be involved in furthering mankind’s progress in the space program, especially when it comes to US launch capability.”

7 comments to Stratolaunch lays the groundwork while refining its aircraft design

  • Coastal Ron

    It’s interesting to see that the cost of creating systems that can access space (sub-orbital & orbital) has declined to a point where it can be a personal choice for a wealthy individual. And I’m not talking about just buying rides on Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures, but building your own space transportation company like Stratolaunch, or even SpaceX for that matter. Just an observation.

    Regarding the design of the Stratolaunch carrier vehicle, I wonder if they have decided they don’t have to have much of a pressurized fuselage? Really all they need is a pressurized cockpit, and the rest could be open – might still want to skin it for aerodynamics, but since you’re not carrying anything inside, all you need is a load-bearing structure, not a voluminous one. Can’t wait to see what the final design looks like.

  • StratoLaunch is perfectly set up to compete for the 20 launch and $3-Billion NASA ISS resupply contracts that Orbital Sciences and SpaceX split.

    This NASA CRS contract ends in 2015 so a new $3-Billion and 20-launch contract should open for competition by 2013 for ISS re-supply missions from 2016 to 2019. StratoLaunch has to move fast to look credible by 2013 or 2014 for this next $3-Billion contract.

  • Coastal Ron

    Anom, while I do think that Stratolaunch will ultimately bid for ISS resupply work, I don’t think they will be ready in time for the next contract award period, even if they are using SpaceX hardware. They aren’t planning on testing their carrier vehicle until 2015, and that is far too late for the next contract timeframe.

    Besides, Orbital is likely to lower their prices on the next round of CRS work, and their prices, though higher than SpaceX, are still lower than what NASA would pay from other ISS partners. Orbital is the lower risk path – for now.

  • Gary Warburton

    The dual fuselage plane will be reused but will SpaceX rocket be reusable?

  • Coastal Ron,

    Good points on StratoLaunch being ready for competition.

    The existing 4-year NASA CRS contracts will go from FY 2013 to 2016 because of SpaceX and OSC schedule delays, so the new $3 Billion ISS Re-supply contract competition will cover from FY 2017 to 2020.

    StratoLaunch has said they plan to do their first orbital test launch in 2016, possibly with a Dragon ISS resupply capsule, so StratoLaunch should have perfect timing for the ISS resupply contracts in 2017. Stratolaunch will probably ask for NASA money for their test flight in 2016.

    StratoLaunch will be much cheaper than the $225-Million per mission that OSC is charging NASA for 2.5-tons of cargo per ISS resupply mission. At worst StratoLaunch will charge something comparable to SpaceX at $130-Million per flight. OSC probably can’t compete at those prices.

  • Daniel

    @Gary Warburton – SpaceX is working on making their rocket stages re-used, with a “blast-back” trajectory for the first stage, where it reverses course back to the launch site. A Stratolaunch version would be more efficient, where the carrier aircraft can fly west whatever distance the first stage needs. Now the first stage rocket can just fly a ballistic trajectory back to the landing point, without having to reverse course.

    Combining a reused aircraft with reused rocket stages makes tremendous sense, and I am sure they have thought of it. From what I have seen, it will not be there on the first flight, but more likely test flown and then added over time.

  • Emma Tameside

    “while I do think that Stratolaunch will ultimately bid for ISS resupply work, I don’t think they will be ready in time for the next contract award period, even if they are using SpaceX hardware. They aren’t planning on testing their carrier vehicle until 2015, and that is far too late for the next contract timeframe.”

    I totally agree with this Ron. There’s already some very strong suppliers looking to be ready for similar contracts within the next 2 years. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Boeing has a hand in some of the tenders. Now that SpaceX has shown the industry that it’s possible and profitable, there will be a rush from the shadows to supply the ISS and other manned stations. Don’t be too surprised if Virgin step forward, given then already have some (LOE) framework in place with their established private jet flights and Virgin Galactic.

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