This past May, Stratolaunch Systems rolled out the carrier aircraft from his assembly hanger at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. This is the largest single aircraft hanger in the world because the aircraft it holds–which has no formal name as yet–is the largest aircraft in terms of wingspan. That wingspan is 385 feet, or 117 meters. It’s dual fuselage design shows the trademark Burt Rutan influence. This massive aircraft is powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines which formerly powered Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

I have been following the efforts of Stratolaunch Systems, founded by Paul G. Allen, for several years now. The purpose of the rollout of the aircraft was to perform fueling tests. The press release of 31 May 2017 said nothing of just starting up the engines at the time, so I don’t believe this was done. The six-engine aircraft was rolling out without the finished nose cones for the tip of each fuselage. As with many aircraft, the nose contains the radome equipment which is nearing development completion.

Paul G. Allen (with cap) takes a tour of the hanger facility at Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Stratolaunch Systems)

For lack of a formal name, I will simply call this entire aircraft the Stratolaunch. It is designed to take a rocket with its satellite payload up to roughly 40,000 feet. Stratolaunch will release this rocket, which will fire its engine and deliver the payload to low Earth orbit. The space launch vehicle is being developed by Orbital ATK. Called the Pegasus II, it will be capable of delivering 6,100 kg (13,500 pounds) to LEO.

Sratolaunch Systems has issued numerous milestones, for example, of when the first flight would be, and has overshot all of them. Development of the aircraft, space launch vehicle, unavoidable project delays and other problems have kept pushing the first development flight into the future. The company simply cannot say with confidence when the first flight will take place, let alone the first payload launch.

The question everyone following this effort has been asking is, will this method of payload delivery be significantly cheaper than launching aboard, say, a SpaceX Falcon 9? Stratolaunch Systems would like to tell you that it most definitely will. Paul G. Allen has poured much of his personal wealth into this company and this project. He is driven to see it to completion as success. As one of the co-founders of Microsoft, Mr. Allen is not too familiar with the word failure.

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
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