Stratolaunch Systems

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Stratolaunch Systems
Industry Aerospace
Founded 2011
Headquarters Seattle, Washington
Key people
Paul Allen, Chuck Beames
Parent Vulcan Inc.[1]
Artist's depiction of Stratolauch carrier at apogee, just before launching spacecraft (center vehicle) into orbit.

Stratolaunch Systems, a subsidiary of Vulcan Aerospace, is a space transportation venture developing a new air launch to orbit system, with its corporate headquarters located in Seattle, Washington.[2] The project was begun in 2010 and officially announced in December 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, who had previously collaborated on the creation of SpaceShipOne.[3]

In 2015 Stratolaunch Systems was placed under the supervision of Paul Allen's new company Vulcan Aerospace, a subsidiary of Vulcan, Inc.[4]

The project is a mobile launch system with three primary components; a carrier aircraft being built by Scaled Composites, a multi-stage payload "launch vehicle" which would be launched at high altitude into space from under the carrier aircraft, plus a mating and integration system by Dynetics.[5]

2015 press releases from Stratolaunch Systems have targeted a first test flight for 2016.[6]


The project was started almost a year before the public announcement was made. Development costs were initially projected to be US $300 million in 2011.[7] Dynetics actually began work in early 2010 and had approximately 40 employees working on the project as of December 2011. Dynetics was cited as "responsible for the total systems engineering, integration and testing, which includes aerodynamics, loads, and interfaces."[8] It was announced the SpaceX corporation was also already working on the design for the rocket-powered space vehicle components of the system.

The collaboration with SpaceX had ended by 2012. In a 2015 interview, Chuck Beames (President of Vulcan Aerospace and now supervisor of Stratolaunch Systems) explained, "SpaceX was a partner, and like a lot of partnerships, it was just determined that it was best we went our separate ways – different ambitions. We were interested in their engines, but Elon and his team, they’re about going to Mars, and we’re just in a different place, and so I think it was a parting of the ways that was amicable."[9]

Stratolaunch Systems completed its first 88,000 sq. ft. composites production building in October 2012. In February 2013, the company completed construction of its 92,640 sq. ft. carrier assembly hangar and operations facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The carrier aircraft was originally projected to make its first test flight in 2015. By October 2013, the first flight of the carrier aircraft had been pushed back until 2016, with the first flight of the air-launched rocket expected in 2018.[10]

In 2014, Stratolaunch announced that it was considering multiple launch vehicle options over a range of satellite sizes, and that some development work on the Orbital launch vehicle has been slowed down to focus on completion of the carrier aircraft.[11]

In 2015 Stratolaunch Systems was placed under the supervision of Paul Allen's new company Vulcan Aerospace,[4][12] a subsidiary of Vulcan, Inc. Vulcan Aerospace president Chuck Beames stated, "Vulcan Aerospace is the company within Vulcan that plans and executes projects to shift how the world conceptualizes space travel through cost reduction and on‐demand access. Vulcan Aerospace has its heritage in SpaceShipOne and oversees the Stratolaunch Systems project"[13] Later in the year, in November, Gary Wentz "stepped down as president and CEO of Stratolaunch Systems to join United Launch Alliance to lead human launch services" for ULA. Vulcan ended its contract with Orbital ATK in mid-2015 and indicated that a decision on a new rocket for the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft would be made in late 2015.[14]

Carrier aircraft[edit]

Wingspan comparison of the Stratolaunch carrier with other large airplanes

Allen and Rutan stated that Stratolaunch's carrier aircraft would have a wingspan of 117 m (385 ft) or about 6.1 m (20 ft) longer than an Apollo-era Saturn V and about half as long as the Hindenburg class airships. This would make it the largest airplane, by wingspan, to ever fly. It will weigh in at over 540,000 kg (1,200,000 lb) including the fully fueled launch vehicle and will require a runway at least 12,000 feet long.

The carrier plane will be powered by six 205–296 kN (46,000–66,500 lbf) thrust-range jet engines, sourced from two used 747-400s that were cannibalized for engines, avionics, flight deck, landing gear and other proven systems to reduce initial development costs. The carrier is designed to have a range of 2,200 km (1,200 nmi) when flying an air launch mission.

In August, 2015, Vulcan Aerospace president Chuck Beame (now supervisor of Stratolaunch Systems) said, "In 2016, I think, we’ll have the aircraft flying... 80 percent is fabricated now... about 40 percent assembled... we should have final assembly done the end of this year or early next year. For the next few years, we’ll do all of our test flights out of Mojave... There’s already an air corridor that’s established by the Air Force for this kind of stuff anyway, and we’ll fly out over the Pacific".[9]

While there has been no official announcement on what the company will call the carrier aircraft, there have been persistent rumors of it being referred to in-house as the "StratoLauncher".[15][16][17]

Launch vehicle[edit]

Originally SpaceX was intended to provide a liquid-fuelled rocket to serve as the means of lifting the Stratolaunch payload delivery vehicle into space by launching it at high altitude from under the carrier aircraft, but collaboration with SpaceX was abandoned in late 2012.[18]

In November 2012, Stratolaunch retained Orbital ATK on a "study contract" to develop and evaluate "several alternative configurations" for the vehicle to be launched from the carrier aircraft.[19]

By early 2013, Orbital ATK was under contract to develop the Pegasus II for the Stratolaunch space vehicle launch component: The Pegasus II was expected to be able to deliver up to 13,500 pounds (6,100 kg) to low Earth orbit.[20]

In May 2015, it was announced that the Pegasus II solid-fuel rocket was not achieving design economic goals and that Stratolaunch had contracted with the GenCorp division of Aerojet Rocketdyne to build the RL10C-1 dual-motor liquid fuel engines for the launch vehicle.[21]

Manned launch vehicle[edit]

Main article: Dream Chaser

Shortly after losing a NASA contract competition to SpaceX and Boeing in September 2014,[22] Sierra Nevada Corporation announced it had conceptualized a launch system that combined a scaled-down version of the company’s Dream Chaser space plane with the Stratolaunch Systems high altitude air-launch system.[23]

In late November 2014, Vulcan Aerospace released the results of the SNC/Stratolaunch space transportation architecture, which indicated that a reduced-size Dream Chaser in conjunction with the Stratolaunch-based launch system could provide a number of unique mission capabilities. The proposed system would have an outbound range of 1,900 kilometers; 1,200 miles (1,000 nmi) away from the airport where the aircraft departed, which would allow launches to any given orbital plane for rendezvous with another object in low-Earth orbit on a daily basis. The launch vehicle in the study was a modified air-launched Orbital ATK rocket that is approximately 37 m (120 ft) in length. The manned space plane payload would be a 75-percent sized version of the Dream Chaser vehicle previously proposed to NASA—while maintaining the relative outer mold line-6.9 m (22.5 ft) in length with a wingspan of 5.5 m (18.2 ft), which could carry 2 to 3 crewmembers plus a variety of scientific and research payloads.[24]


In 2011, Stratolaunch Systems signed a 20-year lease agreement with the Kern County Airport Authority, Mojave, California, for the lease of 20 acres (8.1 ha) at the Mojave Air and Space Port to build production and launch facilities.[25]

As of 2015, Stratolaunch has built a 8,200 m2 (88,000 sq ft) fabrication hangar and a 8,607 m2 (92,640 sq ft) assembly hangar located close to Scaled Composites.[26] The first of two manufacturing buildings, the "88,000 square foot facility [to] be used to construct the composite sections of the wing and fuselage sections", was opened for production in October 2012, two months ahead of schedule and on budget.[27][28] Stratolaunch completed their second Mojave building, the very large hangar facility for the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, in February 2013.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mecham, Michael; Frank Morring, Jr. (December 20, 2011). "Allen Places Big Bet On Air Launches". Aviation Week. Retrieved December 23, 2011. Dynetics has been under contract to Vulcan for almost a year and has some 40 employees on the project so far. SpaceX joined more recently, and the overall team is still working through details of how to progress toward its 2016 first launch. 
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Ellie Zolfagharifard (17 April 2015). "Paul Allen launches 'Vulcan Aerospace': Microsoft founder says new company will get biggest plane in history off the ground - and it could launch astronauts into space". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 2015-08-03. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Kelley, Mike (December 15, 2011). "Dynetics to provide systems integration for new commercial space launch system". Huntsville Times. Retrieved December 18, 2011. 
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^
  11. ^ Foust, Jeff (2015-04-15). "Stratolaunch Considering Using Multiple Launch". Space News. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Stratolaunch’s Plans Up in the Air, Jeff Foust, SpaceNews, 18 November 2015, accessed 28 November 2015.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Dan Leone (30 November 2012). "Orbital Sciences Replaces SpaceX on Stratolaunch Project". Space News. 
  19. ^ "Orbital Sciences Replaces SpaceX on Stratolaunch Project". November 30, 2012. Retrieved December 1, 2012. 
  20. ^ Bergin, Chris (May 25, 2013). "Stratolaunch and Orbital – The Height of Air Launch". NASA SpaceFlight. Retrieved May 24, 2013. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ "NASA Chooses American Companies to Transport U.S. Astronauts to International Space Station". NASA. September 16, 2014. Retrieved September 18, 2014. 
  23. ^ "Sierra Nevada and Stratolaunch Team Up on Dream Chaser Space Plane". NBC News. October 1, 2014. Retrieved October 1, 2014. 
  24. ^ Gebhardt, Chris (November 26, 2014). "SNC, Stratolaunch expand on proposed Dream Chaser flights". Retrieved 2014-11-27. 
  25. ^ "Stratolaunch Systems Signs Lease with Mojave Air and Space Port" (Press release). Huntsville, Alabama: Stratolaunch Systems. May 31, 2011. Archived from the original on December 17, 2011. Retrieved December 14, 2011. 
  26. ^ [1]
  27. ^ Lindsay, Clark (October 23, 2012). "Stratolaunch opens production facility at Mojave spaceport". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved October 27, 2012. (subscription required (help)). 
  28. ^ Messier, Doug (November 5, 2012). "A Birdzilla’s Eye View of the Stratolaunch Hangar Under Construction". Parabolic Arc. Retrieved November 7, 2012. 
  29. ^ Messier, Doug (February 20, 2013). "Stratolaunch Systems Opens Hangar in Mojave". Parabolic Arc. Retrieved February 22, 2013. 

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