Spotlight | Vulcan Aerospace

SAN FRANCISCO — When Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan announced plans in late 2011 to establish Stratolaunch Systems Corp., a firm charged with developing the world’s largest aircraft with six 747 engines and a 116-meter wingspan to send rockets into low Earth orbit, space industry observers called the plan audacious. Few people realized at the time that Allen’s plan to revolutionize space transportation extends far beyond Stratolaunch Systems.

“Paul’s vision is to solve a problem that has long plagued the space business,” said Charles Beames, Vulcan Aerospace president and Stratolaunch Systems executive director. “Access to space is really expensive and terribly inconvenient.”

In 2014, Allen formed Vulcan Aerospace to realize that vision and made Stratolaunch Systems a subsidiary. Vulcan Aerospace plans to cut the cost of sending rockets to low Earth orbit. Initially, those rockets will carry cargo but the firm plans eventually to use the same air-launch capability for human spaceflight. Once transportation to low Earth orbit is inexpensive and frequent, people will be able to assemble spacecraft in microgravity that are so massive they would be impossible to build on the ground and send into orbit, Beames said.

Vulcan Aerospace logo

Vulcan Aerospace at a Glance

Headquarters: Seattle

Established: 2014

Top Officials: Paul G. Allen, founder and chief executive; Charles Beames, president

Mission: To shift how the world thinks of and approaches space through cost reduction and on-demand access

“The real answer for the long, long term for human spaceflight is to build spacecraft in space,” Beames said. “The design of a spacecraft is completely different than an aircraft that has to deal with gravity and air. If we get that dramatic reduction in the cost to low Earth orbit, that enables the future of human spaceflight, which is to build large spacecraft on orbit for exploring the solar system.”

Chuck Beames
Chuck Beames. Credit: Vulcan Aerospace

Vulcan Aerospace is seeking to monetize its investments in Stratolaunch Systems and Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, a firm that offers launch and communications services for small satellites, Beames said. In March Spaceflight announced it had raised $20.74 million from three investment groups, including Vulcan Capital, the investment arm of Vulcan Inc., a firm Allen co-founded in Seattle in 1986 to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges in fields including technology, science, environmental and wildlife conservation. Vulcan officials declined to discuss the value of their investments in Spaceflight and Stratolaunch.

In May 2014, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced plans to supply RL10C-1 liquid fuel engines for the third stage of the Stratolaunch Systems air-launched rocket, dubbed Thunderbolt. One month later, Stratolaunch Systems announced Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, would develop, build and operate its three-stage, air-launched rocket.

Another Stratolaunch Systems partner, Scaled Composites, is building its massive carrier aircraft in a hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Scaled Composites plans to complete that construction job by the end of 2015. Flight-testing of the aircraft is scheduled to begin in 2016 and Stratolaunch Systems demonstration missions are slated for 2018, Beames said.

Scaled Composites President Kevin Mickey said the airplane’s enormous size has made it a challenge to build. “Compared to the size of most of the airplanes we have built, this is an ‘aircraft carrier,’” he said. “The logistics of moving the structures into place for assembly are extremely challenging. In the past we have been able to handle almost everything with manpower; this project requires equipment and machinery.”

Vulcan Aerospace business sectors
Graphic showing Vulcan Aerospace business sectors. Credit: Vulcan Aerospace

When that aircraft prepares to take flight with its maximum lift capacity of more than 225,000 kilograms, it will need a 3,800-meter runway. Eventually, however, Stratolaunch Systems may be able to operate at multiple airports, which would be more convenient for customers and less expensive than flying from government launch ranges, Beames said.

“We anticipate huge growth in the market for smaller satellites, in the 1,000 pound (450 kilogram) and under class,” Beames said.  “As satellites shrink, you are able to do more with smaller satellites and therefore less mass.”

Stratolaunch Systems’ air-launch capability is designed to cut the cost of space transportation because the aircraft serves as a reusable first stage that can operate in spite of high winds or inclement weather that would delay ground-launched rockets. “We fly up to 30,000 to 35,000 feet (9,000 to 10,600 meters) and launch the rocket,” Beames said. “Then the aircraft returns to the airport.”

Vulcan Aerospace sees the initial customers for Stratolaunch Systems as “all the people currently trying to access space who would like to do it less expensively and more conveniently,” Beames said. By lowering space transportation costs, however, Vulcan Aerospace is seeking to expand the market. “We are betting that when we offer dramatically lower cost to access space, we will help other companies to open up lots of new markets,” he added.


Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...