Stratolaunch Considering Using Multiple Launch Vehicles

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Stratolaunch Systems, the air-launch venture backed by billionaire Paul Allen, is considering using the giant aircraft it is developing to launch several different types of launch vehicles, and as a result is pausing work on a crewed spacecraft.

In a presentation at the 31st Space Symposium here April 13, Chuck Beames, president of Seattle-based Vulcan Aerospace, the parent company of Stratolaunch Systems, said the company has decided to examine alternative vehicles that could be launched from its aircraft.

Chuck Beames
Vulcan Aerospace President Chuck Beames. Credit: Vulcan Aerospace

Stratolaunch is building an aircraft that will be among the largest in the world in terms of wingspan. The plane, under construction at a company hangar in Mojave, California, was designed to carry aloft a rocket capable of launching medium-class payloads. Orbital ATK is developing the rocket, which uses solid-fuel lower stages and an upper stage powered by RL-10 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Beames, though, indicated that the company is looking at other launch vehicle options. “What we really want to do is focus on a lower-cost propulsion system that is evolvable in some fashion,” he said.

In an interview after his presentation, Beames said those alternatives could be in addition to, and not in place of, the rocket provided by Orbital ATK. “We’re still looking at Orbital as a potential option,” he said. “We’re widening our aperture to see if this is the right path forward.”

Beames said the interest in alternative launch options is driven by the growing interest in small satellites, for which the current Stratolaunch system is oversized. A smaller vehicle, he said, could be developed more quickly and less expensively. “It takes a more near-term focus on revenue generation,” he said.

Stratolaunch could eventually support several launch vehicles, he said, with varying payload capabilities to serve different customers. “We’ll likely have multiple launch vehicle options,” he said. “Some will be available earlier than others.”

Beames did not give a schedule for development of any alternative boosters, but said the company would likely announce its plans later this summer.

Stratolaunch is currently working to complete its carrier aircraft. Beames said in his presentation that 80 percent of the airplane’s parts have been fabricated, and the plane is 40 percent assembled. He said the plane would be ready to be rolled out of its hangar in Mojave as soon as late this year, with flight tests beginning in 2016.

That near-term focus on alternative launch options means Stratolaunch is deferring work on a crewed vehicle that would launch on the Orbital ATK booster. At the International Astronautic Congress in Toronto in October, Stratolaunch and Sierra Nevada Corp. announced they were studying the development of a 75-percent-scale version of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft.

“What we’ve decided to do is kind of take a pause on further development of that,” he said, as Stratolaunch examines alternative launch options.

Beames said that human spaceflight remained a long-term goal of the company, and that it still considered Dream Chaser the best spacecraft option. “Once those plans are solid going forward, we will re-engage with Sierra Nevada specifically on the modified Dream Chaser,” he said.

In his conference presentation, Beames described Stratolaunch as a first step in the long-range space commercial plans of Vulcan Aerospace, part of Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

Stratolaunch, he argued, can help lower the cost of space access to the point where it enables new markets, a concept he called “NextSpace.”

Beames promised more details about Vulcan’s overall business plans in the space field in the near future. “I think you’ll see lots of announcements as we roll out more things from Vulcan Aerospace in the next year, year and a half.”