Stratolaunch Systems and Orbtial ATK Team Up (Again)

New Ride Credit Vulcan Aerospace

New Ride
Credit Vulcan Aerospace

The wild, but underwhelming ride that has been Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s effort to revolutionize the launch industry with the Stratolaunch aircraft has taken another turn.

Yesterday, Stratolaunch Systems announced an agreement with Orbital ATK to use the massive carrier aircraft to loft Pegasus XL rockets for air launch, a move which would supplant the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar which has served the 1,000 lb. to LEO winged rocket for years. This is the second launch agreement between Stratolaunch and Orbital ATK, with the first, which called for the latter to develop a new booster which was at one time informally called Pegasus II, having gone nowhere.

The new agreement appears to suggest a different sort of tri-star, as the accompanying graphic shows three Pegasus boosters slung under the center section of twin fuselage composite aircraft powered by six 747 engines. In that context, yesterday’s announcement may be a good thing for both companies.

While Stratolaunch has been an aircraft in search of a rocket since its original partner SpaceX walked away after only a few months collaboration, Orbital’s Pegasus has been on life support, kept alive by the occasional NASA mission but otherwise crippled by wildly escalating prices which have risen as demand has fallen.

The launch market which once fell out from under Pegasus is now coming back in a major way however, with fleets of small satellites on the drawing boards around the world. Taken together with modest cost savings in building the booster which should have accrued from the consolidation of Orbital Sciences and ATK, the operational approach of clustering launches might just bring the Pegasus out of mythology once again.

For Vulcan Aerospace, which owns Stratolaunch, continued progress on the aircraft raised the specter of a truly embarrassing predicament in which it was ready to take off without a partner, and only the Estes corporation card lingering in the rolodex.

As the old saying goes, the girls all look prettier at closing time, and for Stratolaunch, the bartender was just about to make the last call. If Paul Allen’s project is to ever realize the potential it once proclaimed however, there has got to be something better out there.

Vulcan Aerospace Press Release

Orbital ATK and Stratolaunch Systems Partner to Offer Competitive Space Launch Opportunities

October 06, 2016

Orbital ATK, Inc. (NYSE: OA), a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies, and Stratolaunch Systems today announced a multi-year production-based partnership that will offer significant cost advantages to air-launch customers. Stratolaunch Systems, in cooperation with Vulcan Aerospace, is responsible for realizing Paul G. Allen’s vision for space.

Under this partnership, Orbital ATK will initially provide multiple Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles for use with the Stratolaunch aircraft to provide customers with unparalleled flexibility to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. Pegasus has carried out 42 space launch missions, successfully placing more than 80 satellites into orbit for scientific, commercial, defense and international customers.

“We are energized by this evolved partnership with Orbital ATK,” said Mr. Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch Systems and executive director of Vulcan Aerospace. “Orbital ATK is the world’s most experienced air-launch service provider, and we are proud to leverage that expertise and progressive approach in pursuit of our shared goal of convenient and affordable commercial access to low Earth orbit.”

“Orbital ATK is excited by this collaboration and sees it as a positive first step in a long-term partnership,” said Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “The combination of our extensive air-launch experience and the Stratolaunch aircraft has the potential to provide innovative and cost-effective options for commercial launch customers.”

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