Stratolaunch takeoff
Stratolaunch's giant aircraft takes off on its first test flight April 13 from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Credit: Stratolaunch

HOUSTON — Stratolaunch, the venture founded by the late Paul Allen to develop an air-launch system, has “transitioned” ownership, but the company is not disclosing who the new owner is.

In a brief statement Oct. 11, Stratolaunch said that it “transitioned ownership and is continuing regular operations.” The company had been owned by Vulcan Inc., the holding company of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, since its founding in 2011.

The announcement does not state who the new owner is, or the terms of the transaction. A Stratolaunch spokesperson told SpaceNews that the company is “not sharing any details about the new ownership or details of the transaction at this time.”

The company will continue development of a launch service of some kind. “Our near-term launch vehicle development strategy focuses on providing customizable, reusable, and affordable rocket-powered testbed vehicles and associated flight services,” it stated. The company will also handle flight operations in house, rather than using Scaled Composites, which developed the aircraft and managed its original test flight program.

The future of Stratolaunch had been in question since the death of Allen a year ago. At the time of his death, Vulcan’s chief executive, Bill Hilf, said no changes were imminent at any of its portfolio companies.

In January, though, the company announced it was abandoning development of its own launch vehicle. The company had made significant progress on an engine called PGA, after the initials of Paul G. Allen, that used liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant and could produce 200,000 pounds-force of thrust. That engine was to be used in a family of launch vehicles that would be air-launched from the company’s giant aircraft.

Instead, Stratolaunch said it would use Pegasus XL rockets from Northrop Grumman, with the ability to launch as may as three such small rockets on a single flight. The company also continued development of the aircraft, which made its first and, to date, only flight April 13.

In a short media briefing immediately after the two-and-a-half-hour flight, company officials disclosed no details about its future plans and took no questions from reporters. The company made no public statements after the flight until the announcement of its new ownership, and a number of executives left the company in the intervening months.

While the company kept a low profile, and some in the industry speculated the company may be winding down, there were signs of life. Observers at the Mojave Air and Space Port noted an uptick in activity at Stratolaunch’s giant hangar there, such as an increase in the number of cars parked there. The company’s website lists 11 job openings, including for a test pilot and a senior test pilot, consistent with its statement that it will take over flight test operations.

The descriptions for some of those job opening suggest that Stratolaunch may be more interested in supporting technology development work rather than launch services as it stated in its ownership announcement. “Stratolaunch is developing an air-launch platform to contribute to high-speed research and development,” the descriptions for several positions state. “The goal of Stratolaunch is to use the air-launch platform for enabling technologies that may not exist otherwise.”

“Stratolaunch has the potential for creating technology development opportunities for commercial, philanthropic, and governmental organizations to collect rich and actionable data and drive advancements in science, research, and technology,” the descriptions state.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...