Stratolaunch Systems

Coordinates: 35°02′53.6064″N 118°08′31.9524″W / 35.048224000°N 118.142209000°W / 35.048224000; -118.142209000

Stratolaunch LLC is an American aerospace company providing high-speed flight test services. It was originally formed in 2011 to develop a new air-launched space transportation system, with its corporate headquarters located in Seattle, Washington.[3][4] The company and development project were officially announced in December 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, who had previously collaborated on the creation of SpaceShipOne.[5]

HeadquartersSeattle, Washington
Key people
Jean Floyd (CEO),
Michael Palmer (EVP)[1]
ProductsFlight test services
Number of employees
87 (December 2019)[2]
ParentCerberus Capital Management[1]
Comparison between five of the largest aircraft:

The project originally had three primary components: a carrier aircraft being built by Scaled Composites (called the Stratolaunch), a multi-stage payload launch vehicle which was to have been launched at high altitude into space from under the carrier aircraft, plus a mating and integration system by Dynetics.[6] Ultimately, only the carrier aircraft was fully developed by the time of Paul Allen's death in late 2018.

The carrier aircraft first flew in April 2019, at the Mojave Air and Space Port, reaching 15,000 ft (4,600 m) and 165 kn (305 km/h) in a 2 h 29 min flight.[7][8]

Stratolaunch underwent a change of ownership and major change of direction in mid-2019 as the assets of the company were put up for sale, and some sources suggested that Stratolaunch could cease operations completely.[9][10][11] The new owner was identified in December 2019 to be Cerberus Capital Management.[1] CEO Jean Floyd announced that Stratolaunch reacquired staff in the fourth quarter of 2019, growing to 87 employees by mid-December and forecasting a "great year" in 2020 providing high-speed flight test services.[2]


The project was started in 2010, almost a year before the public announcement was made. Development costs were initially projected to be US$300 million in 2011.[12] 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".[13] It was announced in 2011 that SpaceX was also already working on the design for the rocket-powered space vehicle components of the system, the Falcon 9 Air.

Stratolaunch logo from 2011–2019

The collaboration with SpaceX ended by 2012. In a 2015 interview, former president Chuck Beames (2014–2016) 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".[14]

Stratolaunch Systems completed its first 8,200 m2 (88,000 sq ft) composites production building in October 2012. In February 2013, the company completed construction of its 8,607 m2 (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 was pushed back until 2018 at the earliest, with the first flight of the air-launched rocket expected in 2019 at the earliest.[15]

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.[16]

In 2015, Stratolaunch Systems was placed under the supervision of Paul Allen's new aerospace company Vulcan Aerospace,[17] a subsidiary of Vulcan Inc. 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"[18]

Later in the year, in November 2015, 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.[19]

In 2017, Fast Company named the Stratolaunch one of the world's most innovative companies citing the air-launch system's size and ability to fly in inclement weather.[20] In April 2017, Stratolaunch formally transitioned its name from Vulcan Aerospace to Stratolaunch Systems Corporation.[4]

In May 2017, the Stratolaunch was rolled out for the first time to begin fueling tests, the first of many ground tests.[21]

In December 2017, the Stratolaunch was rolled out for the first taxi test on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.[22][needs update]

In January 2019, Stratolaunch announced it was halting development of its own air-launched family of launch vehicles. This followed the death of Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen in October 2018, who had been the source of funds for the capital intensive development program since its founding in 2011.[23] In April 2019, Jean Floyd remained CEO of Stratolaunch.[24]

On 31 May 2019, it was reported that the company would cease operations and that sale of its assets was being explored.[9][25][10] In the event, the company remained in operation and posted job openings, including listings for test pilots, in September 2019.[26]

In October 2019, the company announced continuing regular operation and change of ownership, but did not disclose the identity of the new owner [27][11] as Cerberus Capital Management, a specialist in the purchase of distressed companies, until December 2019.[1]

Stratolaunch began to rapidly reacquire staff in the fourth quarter of 2019, growing from just 13 employees in October 2019 to 87 employees by mid-December 2019. The company redirected its mission to providing high-speed flight test services.[2]

Carrier aircraftEdit

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) wider than the length of an Apollo-era Saturn V and about half as long as the Hindenburg class airships. This would make it the largest airplane, by wingspan, ever to 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 3,700 m (12,000 ft) long. It can carry over 230,000 kg (500,000 lb) of payload.[21]

The carrier plane will be powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4000, 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 then-president Chuck Beames said, "In 2016, I think, we'll have the aircraft flying... 80% is fabricated now... about 40% 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".[14]

In the event, the first Stratolaunch carrier aircraft was not towed out of the Stratolaunch Mojave building to start ground testing until May 2017, at which time the company suggested they were planning for a first "launch demonstration" in 2019.[28]

Over the course of 2018, the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft performed taxi tests of increasing speed at the Mojave airport.[29][30]

On 9 January 2019, the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft completed a 110 knot (219 km/h) taxi test, and released an accompanying photo of the nose landing gear lifted off the ground during the test.[31][32]

The first successful flight test was performed on Saturday, 13 April 2019.[33] The aircraft flew for 2.5 hours, achieving a speed of 304 km/h and altitudes up to 5,181 meters (17,000 ft).[34]

Launch vehicleEdit

Launch rocketEdit

Originally SpaceX was intended to provide a liquid-fueled 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.[35]

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.[36]

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 6,100 kilograms (13,500 lb) to low Earth orbit.[37]

In May 2014, it was announced that the Pegasus II solid-fuel rocket was not achieving design economic goals and that Stratolaunch had contracted with Aerojet Rocketdyne to build the RL10C-1 dual-motor liquid fuel engines for the launch vehicle.[38]

In October 2016, it was announced that "multiple" Pegasus XL rockets would be used by Stratolaunch.[39]

It was announced, on 13 September 2017, that Stratolaunch had signed an agreement with NASA to providing testing services to support propulsion for a vehicle. It was noted that Stratolaunch hired Jeff Thornburg as vice president of propulsion. Thornberg had worked both on the J-2X engine for NASA and helped develop the Raptor rocket engine at SpaceX. The implication is Stratolaunch has decided to go its own way in developing a launch vehicle. The NASA agreement stated that Stratolaunch plans to deliver the test device for "testing of its propulsion system test article element 1" at NASA's Stennis E1 test stand by the end of May 2018. The test series is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018.[40]

On 2 November 2018, Stratolaunch completed the first hot-fire test of the "pre-burner" portion of its engine at NASA's Stennis Space Center.[41][42]

All Stratolaunch development work on its own family of launch vehicles ended in January 2019, but at that time, the company stated it continued to plan to launch the Pegasus XL rocket from the carrier aircraft.[23][needs update]


Crewed Dream Chaser studyEdit

Shortly after losing a NASA contract competition to SpaceX and Boeing in September 2014,[43] 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.[44]

In 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 concept would have an outbound range of 1,900 kilometers; 1,200 miles (1,000 nmi) away from the departure airport, 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 crewed space plane payload would be a 75% 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.[45] The concept did not advance into development and was never built.

Black IceEdit

An internal Stratolaunch concept, the Black Ice spaceplane was revealed in early 2018, as a possible payload for the Stratolaunch system. It would be a fully reusable rocketplane the size of the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter, and initially be robotic, with possible future crewed variant.[46] It is currently in development.[citation needed][timeframe?]


Stratolaunch is developing a reusable, rocket-powered, hypersonic flight vehicle called Talon-A (formerly named Hyper-A testbed vehicle, as originally proposed in late 2018) that would be capable of flying at speeds of Mach 5–Mach 7 (6,125–8,575 km/h; 3,806–5,328 mph). As of March 2020, the vehicle is planned to go into operation in 2022. The aircraft is 8.5 m (28 ft) in length, with a wingspan of 3.4 m (11.3 ft), and is intended to have a launch mass of approximately 2,700 kg (6,000 lb).[47] The company reportedly has sufficient funding in place to complete early development through the first hypersonic test flight.[47] As of November 2020, construction of the prototype was underway and portions of the fuselage were complete.[48]

Stratolaunch also has a concept in place, as of 2020, for a much larger Talon-Z that would be capable of carrying cargo payloads, and perhaps people as well, to orbit.[47]


In 2011, Stratolaunch Systems signed a 20-year lease agreement with the Kern County Airport Authority, Mojave, California, for the lease of 81,000 m2 (20 acres) at the Mojave Air and Space Port to build production and launch facilities.[49]

By 2015, Stratolaunch had built a 8,200 m2 (88,000 sq ft) fabrication hangar and a 8,607 m2 (92,640 sq ft) assembly hangar located near Scaled Composites.[50] 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.[51][52] Stratolaunch completed their second Mojave building, the very large hangar facility for the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, in February 2013.[53]

On 31 May 2017, the first Stratolaunch carrier aircraft was towed from the Stratolaunch Mojave hangar to begin ground testing.[28][54] By late 2017, the plan was to have the first rocket air launch in 2019.[55] This was not achieved.

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit