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What if the world's biggest plane is done? The future of Stratolaunch

Updated: Oct 8, 2019



Editor's note: Thom Patterson is a former CNN senior producer who's been writing and reporting about aviation for more than a decade. Follow him on thompatterson.com and on both Instagram and Twitter @thompatterson.


The future of Stratolaunch, the world's biggest plane, may be in jeopardy just seven weeks after its only flight.


Its owner, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, "is closing operations," according to an exclusive May 31 Reuters report, citing "four people familiar with the matter."


Stratolaunch Systems declined to deny the Reuters report. Nonetheless, "Stratolaunch remains operational," the spokeswoman wrote in an email Tuesday to thompatterson.com. "We'll be sure to reach out with any updates or news to share."


The enormous six-engined, twin-fuselage jet was designed to launch rockets carrying small satellites into low-Earth orbit. After its first flight on April 13, the plane's pilot said it flew as predicted with no major problems.

Despite the successful test flight, many are wondering: Will Stratolaunch ever fly again? Is this one-of-a-kind airplane about to go down in history as a one-and-done project?


It all sounds so familiar.


More than 70 years ago, a gigantic airplane called the H-4 Hercules flew only once before it was mothballed. It was the pet project of another super-rich aviation visionary -- Howard Hughes.


The mostly wooden Hercules acquired a nickname -- the Spruce Goose.

Stratolaunch has also been given a nickname: the Roc -- a gigantic, ancient, mythical bird of prey.


The mega jet was the brainchild of Stratolaunch Systems founder and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who tragically died last year at age 65 from complications linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Now, with Allen unable to protect his expensive dream, the plane could fall victim to corporate budgeteers who may not share his vision.




Might Stratolaunch follow the same path into history as Hughes' plane? Like the Hercules, is the next stop for Allen's Stratolaunch a museum?


Or will another billionaire or company swoop in and save the Roc?


It does seem like this moment offers a rare opportunity for another aviation visionary with deep pockets to carry the fire.


The competitive air-launch-to-orbit market


That person or group, whoever it may be, would have challenges navigating through an increasingly competitive landscape.

The civilian air-launched satellite industry -- for which Stratolaunch was designed -- isn't new. Northrup Grumman Innovation Systems' Stargazer -- a modified Lockheed L-1011 passenger airliner -- has been launching rockets since the 1990s. It launches Pegasus XL rockets carrying satellite payloads weighing up to about 1,000 pounds from altitudes of around 39,000 feet.

Stratolaunch was built to capitalize on this growing industry. It's growing for two big reasons:

  • the number of low-Earth satellites is expected to skyrocket in the coming years, as businesses increasingly rely on them for communications, scientific research and Earth observation.

  • launching rockets from airplanes requires less fuel, no expensive launch pads on the ground and comes with fewer weather delays, because jets can fly above the clouds.




'Hell, full everything'


Stratolaunch competitor Virgin Orbit, founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, is closing in on its first satellite air launch.


Last month, the company announced a successful ground test of its LauncherOne rocket -- which fits under the left wing of Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747-400, Cosmic Girl.


It's called a hotfire test. For three minutes, LauncherOne's main stage roared and blasted fire while bolted to a testing stand at Virgin's Mojave Desert facility.

You've got to love the tone of Virgin Orbit's blog post announcing the test result. It was powerful. "... the data proved that if this stage wasn’t physically bolted down, it had the oomph to make the journey into space."


The company called it a "final full duration, full scale, full thrust – hell, full everything – test firing of LauncherOne’s main stage."


Apparently not wanting to understate the hotfire test, Virgin Orbit said it was "the most challenging, most important, and most successful test in the history of our LauncherOne program."


If all goes as planned, the LauncherOne rocket will blast off from Cosmic Girl sometime before the end of this year.


"Simply put, there are no ‘firsts’ remaining for us on the ground," Virgin Orbit said in a statement. "Every single part of the system, whether that’s hardware, software, or processes, has now been demonstrated on our test stands.”





Of course that doesn't mean launching small satellites into low orbit from the ground is going away. Several emerging competitors are hungry for a piece of the micro-satellite pie, intending to put them into orbit the old fashioned way.


What an accomplishment


Stratolaunch Systems began in 2011 and behold -- in only eight years, it had built not only a flying prototype, but the largest plane by wingspan in aviation history.


Measuring 385 feet from end to end, Stratolaunch's wings are 64 feet wider than the Hughes H-4.


Needless to say, everyone associated with the Roc has the right to be immensely proud.


During Stratolaunch's only flight last April, test pilot Evan Thomas flew for about 2-and-a-half hours, to speeds of around 173 mph, climbing as high as 15,000 feet, before returning to Mojave Air & Space Port north of Los Angeles for a touchdown that Stratolaunch Systems CEO Jean Floyd described as "spectacular, smooth and on the mark."


Stratolaunch's only flight so far, on April 13. (Photo: Stratolaunch Systems)

"For the most part, the plane flew as predicted," Thomas told reporters immediately following the test flight. "It was overall fantastic. I honestly could not have hoped for more on a first flight, especially of an airplane of this complexity and this uniqueness."

It was an emotional day for Floyd, who had partnered with Allen in hopes of seeing the Roc take flight.


"I had imagined this moment for years, but I had never imagined it without Paul standing next to me," Floyd told reporters.


He said when the Roc took flight, he whispered "thank you" to Allen.


Now, the world will be watching with great interest to see what Stratolaunch Systems will do with Allen's Roc.

Read more about the plane from my CNN piece back in April...


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