World’s Largest Airplane to Launch Pegasus XL Boosters

Conceptual rendering of the Stratolaunch Aircraft and the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)
Conceptual rendering of the Stratolaunch Aircraft and the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)

DULLES, Va., 6 October, 2016 (Orbital ATK/Vulcan Aerospace PR) – Orbital ATK, Inc. (NYSE: OA), a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies, and Stratolaunch Systems today announced a multi-year production-based partnership that will offer significant cost advantages to air-launch customers. Stratolaunch Systems, in cooperation with Vulcan Aerospace, is responsible for realizing Paul G. Allen’s vision for space.

Under this partnership, Orbital ATK will initially provide multiple Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles for use with the Stratolaunch aircraft to provide customers with unparalleled flexibility to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. Pegasus has carried out 42 space launch missions, successfully placing more than 80 satellites into orbit for scientific, commercial, defense and international customers.

“We are energized by this evolved partnership with Orbital ATK,” said Mr. Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch Systems and executive director of Vulcan Aerospace. “Orbital ATK is the world’s most experienced air-launch service provider, and we are proud to leverage that expertise and progressive approach in pursuit of our shared goal of convenient and affordable commercial access to low Earth orbit.”

“Orbital ATK is excited by this collaboration and sees it as a positive first step in a long-term partnership,” said Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “The combination of our extensive air-launch experience and the Stratolaunch aircraft has the potential to provide innovative and cost-effective options for commercial launch customers.”

About Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK is a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies. The company designs, builds and delivers space, defense and aviation systems for customers around the world, both as a prime contractor and merchant supplier. Its main products include launch vehicles and related propulsion systems; missile products, subsystems and defense electronics; precision weapons, armament systems and ammunition; satellites and associated space components and services; and advanced aerospace structures. Headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, Orbital ATK employs approximately 12,000 people in 18 states across the U.S. and in several international locations. For more information, visit www.orbitalatk.com.

About Stratolaunch Systems and Vulcan Aerospace

Stratolaunch Systems and Vulcan Aerospace are responsible for realizing Paul G. Allen’s vision for space. Vulcan Aerospace was founded to provide flexible, reliable and convenient access to low Earth orbit (LEO) through air-launch aboard the Stratolaunch aircraft and through strategic investments in emerging and innovative technologies. Developed by Stratolaunch Systems, the Stratolaunch aircraft is nearing completion by Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

For more information, visit aerospace.vulcan.com.

  • Sam Moore

    I don’t understand this.

  • Sam Moore

    I mean, if they came out with this on April 1st I’d say it was a pretty good goof.

  • Robert G. Oler

    this is a solution looking for a problem

  • passinglurker

    Well that’s one way to fill birdzilla’s wings… but how will this bring down or add value to pegasus’s ~50million dollar per launch price tag?

    Is there really a market for this rocket outside nasa’s token support?

  • JamesG

    Why? The Pegusus is a proven ready to fly vehicle and the Orbital guys can get the Stratolaunch folks up to speed on air-launch payload integration and operations. Even the fact that Birdzilla can carry three of them isn’t silly. If they have three launches manifested and waiting they can service them all in one flight.

    And notice the operative word ,”initally” in the press release. Its probably a safe bet that a medium launcher is in the works, either an air-launch Antares, or something from ATK’s SRB playbook.

  • ThomasLMatula

    They probably could of bought a couple of used DC-10’s for a lot less and just fly them in formation…

    I really feel sorry for Paul Allen. Twice he listened to Burt Rutan and twice he led him down the wrong path. At least it will look good in his museum.

  • passinglurker

    Maybe because Pegasus is prohibitively expensive for most anything outside of government work? unless flying on stratolaunch somehow brings down the price or adds significant value I imagine many won’t see a lot of business heading thier way.

  • Sam Moore

    But they don’t have three launches manifested, and they haven’t for a long time. Because of the expense, and I don’t see how this is supposed to make it any cheaper.

  • Douglas Messier

    Another piece of a confusing puzzle. Wonder if this is related to Chuck Beames leaving.

  • passinglurker

    Didn’t the current vulcan CEO Jean Floyd used to be the Pegasus program manager at OATK?

  • Douglas Messier

    True. His biography from the Vulcan Aerospace website:

    Jean Floyd is Interim Executive Director of Vulcan Aerospace and CEO of Stratolaunch Systems, which will change how the world approaches and utilizes space by challenging the current model of orbital launches. Floyd has over thirty years of industry experience and is uniquely
    qualified to oversee and lead the testing and evaluation phase of the carrier aircraft.

    Floyd is a seasoned aerospace professional who has experience leading air launched space vehicle, launch operations, and spacecraft programs. A graduate of the US Air Force Academy, Floyd’s legacy in space began on active duty in the Air Force and continued as the program manager for Orbital’s Pegasus system. Most recently, Floyd was vice president and general manager for the civil and defense division at Orbital ATK, where he managed P&L responsibilities of Human Space Systems, National Security Space, Science and Environmental, and Advanced Flight Systems.

  • JamesG

    They don’t have a manifest because they don’t need to sign notional “launch agreements” with people who don’t have money or a payload to secure loans to build their non-existant lauch vehicle. One of the benefits of being a billionaire’s pet project.

  • Sam Moore

    I mean Pegasus’ manifest.

  • JamesG

    That’s how the Military-Industrial-Complex rolls. Good-ol’ Boy style.

  • JamesG

    For the same reason SpaceX doesn’t fool with Falcon-1s anymore. There are bigger fish to launch.

  • I bet the big winner for this is OATK – they can retire Stargazer and get it off the books with no impact to Pegasus.

  • JamesG

    Yup.

  • passinglurker

    The military industrial complex still needs money to grease the rollers. Which is what is perplexing about this. Where is the money that is incentivizing this move coming from? Do they expect to retire stargazer, and get nasa to buy pegasus launches 3 at a time or something?

  • JamesG

    Not NASA. Vulcan. For launching customer’s (NASA and anyone else who has the money) small sats. OATK gets out of the fiddly small potatoes small sat launch service provider biz and gets steady revenue selling Pegusus rockets to Vulcan (at wholesale?).

  • passinglurker

    hmm… I see low risk and opportunistic that sounds like OATK alright, but it’s probably sign that vulcan is getting desperate to start launching if they are assuming the risks involved with finding customers for these rockets by themselves.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    My bet is space launch is a secondary role for this aircraft. It’s a AN-225 alternative. I’d look for a cargo module to be announced sometime around first flight.

  • JamesG

    Or… they have almost finished building it and are soon going to get into testing and then operation, so they need to source a booster and start lining up customers etc.

  • JamesG

    It would very expensive and not be a very efficient role for it.

  • passinglurker

    Or they could put a whole new meaning to the term ride share if they can bring the cost down close to 3 for the price of 1. A government launch or other eager customer could pay the lions share of a flight while offering a discount to researchers and technology demonstrators at a price competitive to virgin’s launcher-one.

  • Douglas Messier

    In his email to employees, Paul Allen did say they were entering an operational phase so promoting Jean Fuller — who oversaw air launch and Pegasus at Orbital — fits in with that. I suppose it’s all in how you define operational. I think the aircraft still has a ways to go before they can fly it.

  • Sam Moore

    That doesn’t make any sense. OrbATK have made it clear that they will fly more Pegasus’ (Pegasi?) if people buy them, people just aren’t buying them. As for the subcontractor thing, I don’t see how that’s at all relevant. Pegasus right now is too expensive relative to it’s performance for the commercial market; selling them via a second party will not change that.

  • If Vulcan is positioning themselves as an sales/operations company, then it could be doubly good. OATK can focus on designing and building rockets and Vulcan can focus on marketing/sales/launch (not sure who would do integration).

    OATK can be a rocket company without an air force, and Vulcan can be an air force (and find other uses for that air force) without having to worry about the rocket.

  • While I don’t “believe” in air launch (obviously it can work, but I just don’t prefer it from an engineering standpoint), it is certainly getting its fair shot at success. At least this monster has room for launchers to grow – unlike WK2, which required another 747 to launch actual satellites. We have 2 serious, INDEPENDENT air launch efforts – if it can be made to work, we’ll see someone succeed.

    (Yes, both efforts run through Rutan: who do you think designed that delta wing for Pegasus way back when?)

    Just to show my prejudice, I’m not convinced SpaceX is going to succeed with reusable F9 boosters. While I don’t prefer a particular method, I’m glad people are trying them – because evidence is ALWAYS better than my opinion.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Well, there’s no way they’re going to pay for this investment with just space launches. They might have to throw good money after bad just to give this thing a shot at life. Does anyone know what the Ukrainians and Russians charge for their AN-225 and AN-124 services?

  • Zed_WEASEL

    A bad idea. DC-10 could not mounted the Pegasus underneath the fuselage and their days are number due to noise restrictions. Never mind that both the DC-10 and the current O-ATK launch plane Stargrazer (L-1011) are really old aircraft with thirsty engines and high maintenance cost plus scarcity of spare parts.

  • JamesG

    Pegasus is too expensive because OATK has to/wants to price it at a point where it is worth their trouble and more than they could get by using their resources for doing other things like, building weapons or building bigger stuff for well heeled customers (like NASA).
    That doesn’t mean that the Pegasus hardware is that expensive. It probably isn’t since its all mil. std. parts-bin stuff. But the payload integration, loading, and launch ops is very manpower and cost intensive. Pushing all of that (AND most of the insurance costs) on to someone else and just being a sub lets them do other stuff (like building a man-rated Antares II, or their own ginormous rocket?)

  • JamesG

    Stratolaunch’s advantage is that Birdzilla can launch anything from a bottle rocket to a medium launch vehicle, while VG is limited to what they can hang on their 747’s ferry point.

  • Sam Moore

    Pegasus launches were, last time a figure was given, over $50 million. LauncherOne is soon set to provide similar capability soon for less than $10 million. Electron is even sooner set to provide similar capability, albeit in a less flexible way, at under $5 million. Space launch is an inherently low-margin business, and there is *no way* that that cost differential is just going to be profit margin. Unless you seriously think Stratolaunch can reduce the cost by ~80%, nobody but NASA is going to buy a launch. After VG get NASA certified, that’ll just be nobody.

  • JamesG

    Space launch is not a low margin business, at least not in the sense of almost any other industry. Its more like the luxury sports car market. Per unit profits are… nice. While in aggregate, the revenues from whole production year might cover costs plus their single digit percentage of profit, that single digit of a big number is still a big number. And this is after everyone involved in the project has been paid handsomely.

    Principally because its primary customer base is/was government and telecos, and competition within the aerospace industry has been pretty notional for the past couple of decades. All of the players agreed to compete to see who could raise prices the least.

    Now that is changing with the entrance of the likes of SpaceX and the horde of small sat launchers. Real competition. And the fake inflated prices designed to pad shareholder and congressional reelection campaign funds is crumbling.

  • JamesG

    The next shoe to drop is that Vulcan is going to be named as the replacement for Firefly in NASA’s VCLS program.

  • Sam Moore

    None of this has any relation to reality. Commercial space has been strongly competed for a very long time, whether the actors in the competition were american is irrelevant. We’ve had at least a three-way competition for commercial telecom launches for decades, and nobody has been pulling any punches. Just look at what happened to Sea Launch. Twice.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Then maybe an old Airbus. But do you really think the Stratolauncher will be more fuel efficient and have lower maintenance costs as a one off aircraft?

  • passinglurker

    Pegasus sure is a puzzling bird… When the pegasusXL first launched in 1994 it only cost ~10million per launch what changed between then and now to drive up the costs? also is $50million the true base price or is it laden with a lot of government padding, and, testing, and launch assurance extras?

    But if it is just about the padding for government pricing and they could sell commercial launches for cheaper how come we haven’t already seen this launcher or the minotaur-C be more popular with the smallsat market already like the indian PSLV is?

    The evidence points to this just being a terribly overpriced old-space launcher, but then why are they partnering to launch more of them? sure you could say vulcan is just desperate but if this is a bad choice it’s seems just a little too obvious? there is a line between risky and just plane dumb and I think any professional in the field could see that clearly but yet they are still doing this which leads me to believe they know something we don’t at least not for sure?

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Most current airliners can not mounted a Pegasus underneath the fuselage due to ground clearance or enough fuselage length for the Pegasus. Also the Pegasus is too large to be carry on a wing mounting point for 4 engine Jumbo jets.

    The Stratolaunch aircraft Roc is probably more fuel efficient than conventionally layout airliner lugging a large external payload. Which will also have severe performance reductions.

    Since Stratolauncher manufacture the Roc themselves. They can always make more spare parts. Maintenance should about the same as most large air frieghters.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Air launched rockets have a definite advantage over ground launching for some missions. The launch point can be selected to reach the desired obit efficiently/quickly instead of having to use one of the few current space launch complexes. For the military and customers that may need very quick evolutions, air launches cut out the red-tape involved with the Cape, VAFB and Wallops. It’s also easier to put up sats with less fanfare. Something launched a few hundred miles off of the west coast of the US away from shipping/air lanes during the day isn’t likely to wind up reported in the media.

    The proof of whether air launching commercial packages is going to be a viable business is yet to be seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orbital gets some government support to keep Stargazer maintained so it’s available when needed. Stratolaunch may also get some government sponsored readiness support.

    I respect Paul Allen for taking an interest in aerospace projects that are out on the fringe. He’s not going to wind up in the poor house if they tank and the technology development based in the US is always good.

  • Aerospike

    Widespread problems in the Russian ( or rather post Soviet) aerospace sector including a very serious corruption problem is what happened to Sea Launch. Imho.

  • publiusr

    The AN-225 can do real *work* when not hauling shuttles, boosters, whatever. That’s why China got that second unfinished one.