Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch unveils plans for new family of rockets (and a space plane)

Stratolaunch rocket family
Artwork shows Stratolaunch’s giant carrier plane and several classes of launch vehicles, including Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, a medium-class rocket and its heavy-lift variant, and a fully reusable space plane. (Stratolaunch Illustration)

Stratolaunch, the space venture created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, today provided the first details about a new family of launch vehicles it has in the works, including two types of rockets and a reusable space plane that could someday carry astronauts to orbit.

The revelation follows up on rumblings that Stratolaunch has been working on its own rockets and a “Black Ice” space plane, along with the world’s biggest airplane to launch them from.

Previously, the company had said only that it’d start by air-launching Pegasus XL rockets from Orbital ATK (which was recently acquired by Northrop Grumman). The Pegasus is still in the mix, but at the low end of Stratolaunch’s spectrum of orbital launch capability.

“We are excited to share for the first time some details about the development of our own, proprietary Stratolaunch launch vehicles, with which we will offer a flexible launch capability unlike any other,” Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said in a news release. “Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight.”

Here’s the lineup and the status of each offering:

  • Pegasus: Track record of more than 35 successful orbital launches from airplanes including B-52s and Orbital ATK’s L-1011 carrier plane. Maximum payload to 250-mile (400-kilometer) circular orbit: 370 kilograms (816 pounds). Status: In development with first flight in 2020.
  • Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV): New medium-class air-launch vehicle optimized for short satellite integration timelines, affordable launch and flexible launch profiles. Capability: 3,400-kilogram (7,500-pound) payload to low Earth orbit. Status: In development with first flight in 2022.
  • Medium Launch Vehicle – Heavy (MLV-H): Three-core MLV variant with capability to deploy heavier payloads to orbit. Capability: 6,000-kilogram (13,228-pound) payload to low Earth orbit. Status: Early development.
  • Space Plane: Fully reusable space plane that enables advanced in-orbit capabilities and cargo return. Initial designs optimized for cargo launch, with a follow-on variant capable of transporting crew. Based on Stratolaunch’s illustration, the space plane looks much like the Air Force’s Boeing-built X-37B space plane. Capability: Medium-class payload or crew. Status: Design study.

Stratolaunch is putting its twin-fuselage, 385-foot-wingspan carrier airplane through runway taxi tests at Mojave Air and Space Port in California, with the stated aim of getting it off the ground for its first test flight by the end of summer. That schedule was laid out in April, however, and the date seems likely to slip.

Test flights in Mojave are expected to lead to airworthiness certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and the first Pegasus rocket launch by as early as 2020.

Stratolaunch’s air-launch capability would be a dramatically scaled-up version of the technology used for Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus as well as for Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne rocket plane (which received $25 million in backing from Paul Allen) and for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system (which is also currently in development).

Each launch would involve dropping a rocket from the massive carrier airplane, then having it light up its engines in midair to press on to orbit.

The main advantage is that launches can be conducted from any locale in reach of a suitable runway. Payloads could theoretically be sent toward any orbital inclination, and the carrier plane could be flown to avoid any storms that would preclude launch.

The plane is based at Stratolaunch’s cavernous 103,000-square-foot hangar in Mojave, but much of the company’s design work is done in Seattle. Stratolaunch’s Seattle offices serve as the venue for most of the positions currently advertised on Stratolaunch’s website, including an opening for a propulsion lead engineer.