Stratolaunch to resume test flights in September
BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Stratolaunch plans to resume test flights of its giant aircraft later this year as the company continues its shift from a launch services company to a provider of high-speed flight test services.
Mark Bitterman, vice president for government relations and business development at Stratolaunch, said in a March 4 presentation at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference here that the company’s one-of-a-kind plane would start flying again in September.
“We are working to get certified by the FAA, so beginning in September we’ll fly at least once a month,” he said. Those tests would last for about eight months in order to get the plane certified by the FAA.
The Stratolaunch plane flew once, in April 2019, in a test flight from Mojave Air and Space Port in California that lasted two and a half hours. Company officials said then that the flight went well, but disclosed no details about plans for future tests.
By the time the plane flew for the first time, the company’s future was uncertain. Its founder, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, passed away in October 2018, and three months later the company stopped work on development of launch vehicles that could be flown from the plane.
In October, Stratolaunch announced that it had “transitioned ownership” from Vulcan, Allen’s holding company, to an unnamed organization that later reporting found to be Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity fund headquartered in New York.
Stratolaunch, Bitterman said, no longer calls itself a launch company. “We considered ourselves a space launch company under the previous Stratolaunch,” he said. “We are something very different now.”
That new focus is on supporting high-speed flight testing, such as hypersonics work, something the company suggested in January it was interested in. “Our business plan is built around the operation of a fleet of vehicles with both government and industry customers,” he said. “What we’re looking at essentially are customizable, reusable and affordable rocket-powered testbed vehicles, and associated flight services.”
He didn’t go into details about those vehicles’ designs, but said that the company would provide more information later this month. He added that the development will be internally funded, and that the company’s new owners have fully funded that work.
“We are still looking for partnerships, but we are fully funded to develop our new vehicles,” he said. Those potential partnerships would include unnamed prime contractors working on hypersonic vehicle projects.
That full funding has enabled the company to rapidly grow. Bitterman said the company now has 115 people, up from the 87 the company reported in December. He added that Stratolaunch’s chief executive, Jean Floyd, will be moving from the company’s small headquarters in Seattle to Mojave, where the plane and the bulk of the company’s employees are based.
Launch, he said, is not something Stratolaunch will pursue for several years. “Our near-term plan — say, five to eight years — is not to launch satellites to LEO,” he said. However, the company could support technology development, including flying payloads on suborbital flights on the company’s hypersonic vehicles, a reason why he was presenting at the conference.