Stratolaunch Systems

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Stratolaunch Systems
Industry Aerospace
Founded 2011
Headquarters Huntsville, Alabama
Key people
Paul Allen, Burt Rutan, Mike Griffin
Parent Vulcan Inc.[1]

Stratolaunch Systems is a space transportation venture developing a new air launch to orbit system, with its corporate headquarters located in Huntsville, Alabama. It was founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, who had previously collaborated on the creation of SpaceShipOne.[2]

The start up is building a mobile launch system with three primary components; a carrier aircraft being built by Scaled Composites, a multi-stage launch vehicle that is still in conceptualization as of mid-2015, and a mating and integration system to be built by Dynetics,[3] with the first test flight of the carrier aircraft expected in 2016.[4] Dynetics will also be "responsible for the systems engineering, integration and testing, which includes aerodynamics, loads, and interfaces."[5] Development costs were initially estimated to be US$300 million in 2011.[6]


The project was started nearly a year prior to the public announcement. Dynetics began work in early 2011, and has approximately 40 employees working on the project as of December 2011. Originally, the launch vehicle was to be provided by SpaceX; their efforts began only shortly prior to the public announcement.[1]

In February 2013, Stratolaunch completed construction of their manufacturing and operations facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port with the completion of their second building, a very large hangar facility for the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft.[7] They completed their first aircraft composites production building in October 2012,[8] and several limited views of the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft—the StratoLauncher—under construction were released in a KGET video segment in 2015.[9]

The carrier aircraft was originally expected to make its first test flight in 2015 with a follow on to orbital testing of the launch vehicle in 2016.[10] By October 2013, the first flight of the carrier aircraft was not expected until 2016, with the first flight of the air-launched rocket expected in 2018.[4]

In April 2015, Stratolaunch announced that they are considering options for multiple launch vehicle options over a range of satellite sizes, and that some development work on the Orbital launch vehicle has been slowed down.[11] In a May 2015 reorganization, Stratolaunch Systems was placed under the Vulcan Aerospace subsidiary of Vulcan.[12]

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),[1][13] 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.[14] It will weigh in at over 540,000 kg (1,200,000 lb) including the fully fueled launch vehicle.[13]

The aircraft will be powered by six 205–296 kN (46,000–66,500 lbf) thrust-range jet engines, that are planned to be sourced from two used 747-400s that will be cannibalized for engines, avionics, flight deck, landing gear and other proven systems that can be recycled to cut development costs."[1] The two aircraft have been purchased and had arrived on site as of March 2012.[15] The carrier aircraft is expected to have a range of 2,200 km (1,200 nmi) on air launch missions.[3][16] It will use a 3,700 m (12,000 ft) long runway.[10] Flight testing of the carrier aircraft is expected to begin in 2016.[4][9]

Launch vehicle[edit]

In the latter part of 2012, Stratolaunch retained Orbital Sciences Corporation on a "study contract" to develop and evaluate "several alternative configurations" for the Stratolaunch launch vehicle through early 2013, with a goal to "keep the world’s largest air-launch-to-orbit system on track for a 2017 test flight." More public information is expected to be released in "the February 2013 timeframe."[17]

Originally, SpaceX was projected to provide a liquid-fuelled launch rocket, which was withdrawn by November 2012.[18] By May 2013, Orbital was under contract to develop the Pegasus II for the Stratolaunch air-launch system.[19]

Stratolaunch launch vehicle history[edit]

Stratolaunch has pursued a variety of options for the air-launched launch vehicle since announcing the program in late 2011, and as of mid-2015, is still investigating a variety of options.

Stratolaunch initially planned to utilize the SpaceX Falcon 9 Air in 2011 and 2012, switching to the Orbital Sciences Pegasus II for 2013–early 2015. By mid-2015, Stratolaunch had shelved work on the Pegasus II option and was investigating approximately 70 different variations for the Stratolaunch launch vehicle.[20]


When initially announced in December 2011, the SpaceX Falcon 9 Air (F9A), a Falcon 9-derivative two-stage liquid-fueled air-launched winged launch vehicle, was to be developed by SpaceX.[16] The F9A launch vehicle was to have a launch mass of approximately 220,000 kilograms (490,000 lb) with the ability to insert a 6,100 kg (13,500 lb) payload into low Earth orbit.[3][14][21] A month after the initial announcement, Stratolaunch stated that the launch-vehicle would have only four engines, not the five that were shown in the mission video at the program announcement, and that they would be SpaceX Merlin 1D engines.[22]

Orbital Sciences Corporation[edit]

Main article: Pegasus II (rocket)

On November 27, 2012 Stratolaunch announced that they would no longer be collaborating with SpaceX to develop the launch vehicle. Instead, they engaged Orbital Sciences Corporation to design and develop an alternative launch vehicle.[23] In May 2013, the name of the new rocket was publically released: Pegasus II.[19] It was expected to be able to deliver up to 13,500 pounds (6,100 kg) to low Earth orbit,[19] and as of October 2013, the first flight of the air-launched rocket was not expected until 2018.[4]

However, by May 2015, the evaluation of the Orbital solid-rocket launch vehicle economic case was not achieving targets so Stratolaunch has "shelved" the Orbital option and "reopened the design plan and is evaluating over 70 different launch vehicle variants."[20]

Eagles Launch System[edit]

The Eagles Launch System the initial design concept for Stratolaunch’s rocket launch system. As of May 2014, the launch rocket was projected to be a three-stage rocket, with two solid-fueled stages and a liquid-fueled third stage. GenCorp (division of Aerojet Rocketdyne) was contracted to build the dual-motor liquid fuel third stage engines, RL10C-1.[24]

Sierra Nevada Corporation[edit]

Main article: Dream Chaser

Shortly after losing a NASA contract competition to SpaceX and Boeing in September 2014,[25] Sierra Nevada Corporation announced it had conceptualized a launch system that combined a scale version of the company’s Dream Chaser space plane with the Stratolaunch Systems air launch system.[26] 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 Sciences rocket that is approximately 37 m (120 ft) in length. The Dream Chaser 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.[27]

By May 2015, Stratolaunch announced they had no current plans to pursue such an option with SNC, and that any human spaceflight plans for Stratolaunch are out beyond the mid-2020s.[20]


Stratolaunch systems has 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 a facility for the venture.[28] Stratolaunch has now built a 8,200 m2 (88,000 sq ft) fabrication hangar and a 8,607 m2 (92,640 sq ft) assembly and test hangar near Scaled Composites.[15] Groundbreaking was in early 2012. 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.[8][29] Stratolaunch completed their second Mojave building, the very large hangar facility for the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, in February 2013.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d 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. ^ Terdiman, Daniel (December 13, 2011). "Paul Allen's Stratolaunch: Grand plan for next-gen space travel". CNET (San Francisco). Archived from the original on December 17, 2011. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c Mecham, Michael (December 14, 2011). "Stratolaunch Aims to Break Affordability Barrier". Aviation Week (New York). Retrieved December 14, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d Norris, Guy (October 4, 2013). "Stratolaunch quietly making progress". Aviation Week. Retrieved October 4, 2013. 
  5. ^ Kelley, Mike (December 15, 2011). "Dynetics to provide systems integration for new commercial space launch system". Huntsville Times. Retrieved December 18, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?". December 19, 2011. 
  7. ^ a b Messier, Doug (February 20, 2013). "Stratolaunch Systems Opens Hangar in Mojave". Parabolic Arc. Retrieved February 22, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Lindsay, Clark (October 23, 2012). "Stratolaunch opens production facility at Mojave spaceport". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved October 27, 2012. (subscription required (help)). 
  9. ^ a b "KGET Special Report: Mojave Air and SpacePort". Kern Golden Empire. 1 February 2015. Retrieved 18 February 2015. Mojave Air and Spaceport is the epicenter of privately-funded commercial space flight research and development. 
  10. ^ a b Whittington, Mark (December 13, 2011). "Space Pioneers Announce Stratolaunch Systems to Revolutionize Space Flight". Yahoo!News. Retrieved December 13, 2011. 
  11. ^ Foust, Jeff (2015-04-15). "Stratolaunch Considering Using Multiple Launch". Space News. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  12. ^ 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). 
  13. ^ a b Paur, Jason (December 13, 2011). "Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen Launches New Space Venture". Wired (New York). Archived from the original on December 14, 2011. Retrieved 201-11-14.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  14. ^ a b "Paul Allen to unveil Stratolaunch Systems today". NewSpace Journal. December 13, 2011. Archived from the original on December 17, 2011. Retrieved December 13, 2011. 
  15. ^ a b [1]
  16. ^ a b Bergin, Chris (December 13, 2011). "Stratolaunch introduce Rutan designed air-launched system for Falcon rockets". Archived from the original on December 14, 2011. Retrieved December 14, 2011. 
  17. ^ "Orbital Sciences Replaces SpaceX on Stratolaunch Project". November 30, 2012. Retrieved December 1, 2012. 
  18. ^ Dan Leone (30 November 2012). "Orbital Sciences Replaces SpaceX on Stratolaunch Project". Space News. 
  19. ^ a b c Bergin, Chris (May 25, 2013). "Stratolaunch and Orbital – The Height of Air Launch". NASA SpaceFlight. Retrieved May 24, 2013. 
  20. ^ a b c "Local engineers aim high for cheaper spaceflight". Seattle Times. 31 May 2015. Retrieved 2015-06-01. 
  21. ^ "Stratolaunch video stills 2". Stratolaunch Press Kit. Stratolaunch Systems. December 13, 2011. Retrieved January 24, 2012. 
  22. ^ Belfiore, Michael (January 5, 2012). "Stratolaunch: world’s biggest airplane to launch spaceships". Retrieved January 14, 2012. The Falcon 4 will be powered by 4 SpaceX Merlin IB engines. 
  23. ^ Rosenberg, Zach (November 27, 2012). "Stratolaunch and SpaceX part ways". Flight Global. Retrieved November 29, 2012. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ "NASA Chooses American Companies to Transport U.S. Astronauts to International Space Station". NASA. September 16, 2014. Retrieved September 18, 2014. 
  26. ^ "Sierra Nevada and Stratolaunch Team Up on Dream Chaser Space Plane". NBC News. October 1, 2014. Retrieved October 1, 2014. 
  27. ^ Gebhardt, Chris (2014-11-26). "SNC, Stratolaunch expand on proposed Dream Chaser flights". Retrieved 2014-11-27. 
  28. ^ "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. 
  29. ^ Messier, Doug (November 5, 2012). "A Birdzilla’s Eye View of the Stratolaunch Hangar Under Construction". Parabolic Arc. Retrieved November 7, 2012. 

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