Sen—A gigantic airplane, designed to serve as flying launch pad for an array of orbital and suborbital space vehicles, is just one of a family of commercial space initiatives under the umbrella of an expanded Paul Allen-backed company called Vulcan Aerospace, an offshoot of Allen’s philanthropic and investment firm, Vulcan Inc.
The aircraft, which is nearing completion in Mojave, California, is the most visible component of Vulcan Aerospace’s Stratolaunch Systems, which Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, started in 2011.
The aircraft, which has a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters)—the largest ever built—is expected to be finished by the end of the year, Stratolaunch executive director Charles Beames told Sen.
“We’ll throw open the hangar door and roll out the aircraft,” said Beames, who also serves as president of Vulcan Aerospace.
So far, fabrication of the all-composite airplane, dubbed “Roc” after a giant mythical bird of prey, is about 80 percent finished. About 40 percent of the aircraft has been assembled.
Powered by six refurbished 747 jet engines, the twin-hulled aircraft is a giant version of the WhiteKnightTwo airplane built by Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic. Scaled also is building Stratolaunch’s airplane.
Stratolaunch intends to have Roc available for commercial service in 2018 or 2019.
Still up in the air is what will fly aboard the aircraft. “Paul’s bigger vision of ushering in a new era in entrepreneurial space … depends on getting the recurring cost down dramatically,” Beames said. To that end, Stratolaunch is reanalyzing what launch vehicles will be offered, with the expectation that more than one option will be available.
“We’re looking at different rocket engines, different fuel types,” Beames said.
Stratolaunch previously replaced its first rocket partner, SpaceX, with Orbital Sciences, now known as Orbital ATK, following its merger with Alliant TechSystems.
“We’re in kind of a pause right now with the Orbital guys,” Beames said. “They are still being considered, but we’re looking at several classes of launch vehicles … not just the most performance that we can possibly get from this carrier aircraft. We’ll probably make those decisions this summer.”
The studies include a scaled down version of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane for passenger flights.
“The design that works is an 80 percent scale of a full size Dream Chaser. We may end up doing that, but we have not made any decisions to take that to the next step yet,” Beames said.
In addition to slashing the cost of getting into space, Stratolaunch wants to develop an on-demand, airport-style mode of operating.
“We need a game-changer in space access. It’s just really expensive and because of the cost, it really suppresses the entrepreneurial spirit,” Beames said.
Launching from aboard an airplane also will eliminate some of the scheduling problems and weather-related delays associated with the primary U.S. space launch sites in Florida, California and Virginia.
“We’re trying to break that part of it wide open,” Beames said.
Changing cost and access to space goes well beyond the launch system, the focus of Stratolaunch. To that end, parent company Vulcan Aerospace has investments and projects involving small satellites, support services and space technologies.
Vulcan calls its expanded focus “NextSpace” and describes it as “a collaborative ecosystem dedicated to everything from exploration and learning to utilizing space as a platform for development and expansion.”
“We’ve seen a transition from ‘Old Space’—a government-capitalized industry focused on military uses of space and general exploration, to ‘New Space’—the emergence of entrepreneurial and private space companies, including Stratolaunch Systems, to what we’re now calling 'NextSpace'—a shift toward inclusiveness as the hallmark of a new era in the expanded utilization of space,” Beames notes in a blog posted on Vulcan Aerospace’s website.
For now, Vulcan is keeping most of its projects out of the public eye, though it has disclosed a $20 million investment in Seattle, Washington-based Spaceflight Industries, parent company of Andrews Space and Spaceflight Services.
“We are invested and we are in discussions with lots of different companies. It’s not just the satellite guys … but the space business end-to-end. People think about GPS as the thing in their cell phone, but there’s the satellite, there’s the whole ground infrastructure, there’s the launching of the satellites … a whole chain. That same thing applies in the commercial industry as well. All sides have to be bolstered and encouraged to be innovative,” Beames said.