To loosely paraphrase Khan Noonien Sing (the real one) Stratolaunch may no as wounded as the Wall Street Journal led us to believe. Here is a statement sent to Spacenews from Vulcan Aerospace made in response to yesterday’s story :
Vulcan Aerospace remains steadfast in its mission to transform space transportation to low-Earth orbit by dramatically changing the current model of space launch. It is unfortunate that the recent, inaccurate, report by the Wall Street Journal implies, via unnamed sources, that this mission has wavered and is based on nothing more than rumors and speculation, not facts.
Today, space launch continues to be hampered by long delays and high costs, especially for the burgeoning class of space entrepreneurs. To best serve the variety of space operators with more convenient and less expensive options, we envision affording the satellite operator multiple launch vehicle options with varying payload capabilities. An effort of this scope and ambition is a massive undertaking and takes time to develop. We are unwavering in our commitment to its success and expect to achieve additional milestones in 2016, as we continue to advance against our original timeline of being fully in service by the end of the decade.
Note: Business model issues aside, the space advocates should hope Stratolaunch makes it into the air, regardless of whatever launch vehicle it initially carriers. Aircraft can have remarkably long lives, over the span of which any number of advances could take place. As a versatile aerial launch platform it could have a long and storied history which may turn out to surprise even the most hardened skeptics.
This past summer, while speaking at the NewSpace 2015 conference in San Jose, Vulcan Inc. president Chuck Beames bristled noticeably when asked by a member of the press if his company, which manages Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s various enterprises, might have put the cart before the horse in committing to build the giant, twin-hulled Stratolaunch carrier aircraft before it had settled on both a launch vehicle design and the market it would serve.
The exchange, which took place between Beames and Parabolicarc’s Doug Messier came after the former announced that a decision on a new launch vehicle, the project’s third, would be made this fall. It reflected a line of concern voiced by observers since the day Stratolaunch Systems was introduced in December 2011, and as of today, it appears to have been very well founded.
With its CEO having departed for United Launch Alliance and no new booster announcement forthcoming, the Wall Street Journal (paywall) is reporting that the Stratolaunch project has likely been put on hold. Few will be surprised if it stays that way.
It was originally announced as a partnership which reunited Paul Allen and legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan, the team which had combined money and brains to win the Ansari XPrize, and combined them with SpaceX, a modified Falcon 9 and two high profile former NASA leaders, to produce a unique launch system which could reach any orbit, any time.
A year later, SpaceX was out, having parted amicably after determining that the changes necessary to build an air-launched version of the Falcon 9 would be too disruptive to the existing production line. Into its place stepped Orbital Sciences, a move which on the surface seemed to make a bit more sense given that company’s pioneering history with the air-launched Pegasus rocket. The new medium class booster would not be named Pegasus II as some speculated, but instead Thunderbolt, with the carrier aircraft, a sort of WhiteKnightThree, being named Roc, after the giant mythological bird of prey.
Looking a little deeper however, the new arrangement seemed to make even less sense.
Already facing an uphill struggle to build and fly the world’s largest airplane economically, Stratolaunch was now incorporating a two stage solid fueled rocket provided by OSC and a third stage powered by two RL-10C engines. Although partially winged, it offered no path to reusability and seemingly no chance of achieving a price point which would make it competitive with the Arianespace commercial version of the venerable Russian Soyuz booster. Looming in the background was SpaceX itself, whose pursuit of reusability threatened to further undermine the business case for Stratolaunch if successful.
Earlier this year, Orbital Sciences, now Orbital ATK, separated from the project as well, prompting Vulcan’s Beames to announce that based on changing market conditions, the company was examining other, smaller launch vehicles, as well as smaller carrier aircraft. Among the casualties, an aerospace version of two lost, lonely people searching in the night; a proposed 2/3 scale version of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane launched by the Roc.
For now, the Stratolaunch website, like the aircraft itself, is “under construction.” Never a good sign.