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.