The SpaceX / Stratolaunch Split

Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

The recently reported split between SpaceX and Stratolaunch Systems raises some interesting questions regarding the future of Paul Allen’s project. The inclusion of SpaceX and its Falcon launch vehicle always seemed to make more sense for Stratolaunch than it did for SpaceX, which after all, is doing quite nicely on its own.

According to reports, Stratolaunch, which has yet to update its website to reflect the departure of SpaceX as a major partner and launch vehicle provider, has now engaged Orbital Sciences  Corporation to present several different potential design solutions for a development decsion early next year. A planned first launch in 2016 must now be considered unlikley.  There is already a tie between the two companies, Scaled Composites, which is building the giant twin-fuselage carrier which is the cornerstone of the  StratoLaunch project, also builds the wing and tail-fin assembly for  Orbital Sciences’s Pegasus booster.

The real question is whether the decidedly more conservative Orbital Sciences,  which is undertaking its first liquid fueled (1st stage at least) rocket with the Antares, can put together a proposal which matches the Stratolaunch concept in ambition, and offers a realistic path to lowering launch costs.  If it cannot, the Stratolaunch project have difficulty getting off the ground.  The issue is further complicated by the fact that with Orbital Sciences now potentially in a position to  win at least some DoD launches for Antares,  there may not be a great deal of incentive to damage its own business case.

The wild card is SpaceX’s efforts to break the mold with the Grasshopper reusable test article.  If a re-usable Falcon is in the works,  it is difficult to see where Stratolaunch fits in unless OSC or yet another partner makes a uncharacterstic leap in producing a re-usable air launched concept.  Nevertheless, the same logic also applies to OSC and Antares. A re-usable first stage booster, whoever produces it, SpaceX, Blue Origin or someone else, stands to turn the launch world upside down, rewarding the risk taker and justifiably punishing those who elected to stay on the sideline.  In tapping the NK-33 / Aerojet AJ-26 engine to power the Antares, OSC already has a potentially re-usable engine, which almost got its opportunity with the Kistler K-1.  Is OSC bold enough to take a chance?

Even though SpaceX and Blue Origin are pursuing Vertical Takeoff / Vertical landing concepts for re-usability, it is not as if the case is closed on the subject, when it hasn’t really even been opened yet.  It is difficult to think of a better starting point for proceeding with a horizontally recovered,  winged booster than a behemoth flying platform like Stratolaunch.

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4 Comments on "The SpaceX / Stratolaunch Split"

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  1. because it’s a stupid idea

  2. Coastal Ron says:

    Considering that SpaceX was already pursuing reusability through their Grasshopper effort, the Stratolaunch participation looked like backup, but not the prime effort that they really wanted to focus on. And once the engineering effort began to require more effort than they probably could afford to do for such a small demand market (they probably would have needed a separate factory to build or modify standard F9 bodies), it just didn’t make sense to continue.

  3. Chris Wilkinson says:

    With both SpaceX and Stratolaunch, you have organizations that are lead by visionaries. These companies, in my opinion, are not feasible without the leadership of their respective heads. Otherwise Boeing or LockMart would have done these projects already. The difference from what has come before is the personalities of these men and the strength of their ideas. Both these men want to execute their own dreams, with the potential of creating a system that results in a competitive zero sum game. SpaceX and Stratolaunch are essentially rivals now.

  4. Coastal Ron says:

    Chris, maybe the SpaceX and Stratolaunch leaders are rivals as “thought leaders”, but their companies don’t compete in the same marketspace.

    Stratolaunch is competing for the LEO smallsat marketspace, whereas the only LEO market SpaceX services is NASA’s Commercial Cargo and Crew needs for the ISS – something Stratolaunch won’t be competing for. The rest of the business SpaceX competes for is GEO, which Stratolaunch likely won’t target, or if they do it would be for far smaller payloads than what SpaceX is targeting.

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