Stratolaunch to Test Rocket Engine Technology at NASA Stennis

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft (Credit: Dylan Schwartz)

Stratolaunch will test rocket engine technology next year at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi under agreements with the space agency.

Paul Allen’s company signed two agreements with NASA: an umbrella Space Act Agreement laying out the terms of cooperation, and an annex under with Stratolaunch will pay $5.1 million to the space agency to use the E1 facility at Stennis for engine tests.

The schedule calls for Stratolaunch to deliver the test hardware by May 31, 2018, and for NASA to complete design, fabricate and install systems by the end of June. The test series will be complete by Dec. 31, 2018.

The contract is a sign that Stratolaunch is pursuing the development of its own launch vehicle. The company has built a massive aircraft to air launch boosters, but it has experienced difficulty in fielding a medium-sized rocket to use with the airplane.

Stratolaunch successively hired SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) to design boosters, but both of those agreement’s fell through. It now plans to begin launching Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL booster when flights begin in around 2020.

In May, Stratolaunch named SpaceX and NASA veteran Jeff Thornburg as its new vice president of propulsion.

“I look forward to working with Jeff to explore new approaches to making access to space more convenient, reliable, and routine,” Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said in a press release at the time.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Does Paul Allen have any relationship with Branson and VG? I figure their paths have crossed vis a vis Burt Rutan and Scaled. As a layperson on the outside looking in, I see Birdzilla in search of a vehicle and I see the recently-released pictures of LauncherOne. Seems like a good fit. But maybe Virgin doesn’t need help keeping the lights on, thanks to the Saudis.

  • Douglas Messier

    LauncherOne has a dedicated 747 to launch it. I’m not sure why they would launch it on Stratolaunch. Yes, the Stratolaunch has a deal to launch Pegasus XL boosters. I think that gives them something to launch, and it’s beneficial to Orbital ATK because they can produce and sell more Pegasus boosters, which lowers the company’s unit costs.

    The Virgin deal with the Saudis is at the MOU level. There’s no money involved until they actually sign a contract.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Maybe not exactly a LauncherOne, but some variant of it. If not an entire launch vehicle, maybe something different based on the engine tech. I suggest this because I’m never sure how the Virgin space companies pay the bills, and figured they’d be looking for some kind of income.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    VG is still in the R&D phase and relies on investors to keep the coffers full. I don’t know if they are selling anything at this point outside of tickets to ride SS2.

  • Charles Lurio

    Everybody wants to get into the rocket business…

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    They’ve been in R&D mode for a long time.

  • Barmaglot

    How does Stratolaunch help OATK sell more Pegasus launches? Unless I’m missing something, Stargazer is far from being a bottleneck in their once-a-year launch cadence.

  • Dave Salt

    Air-launch offers some unique advantages to a space launch system but aircraft operation costs represent a significant overhead that can only be justified by a high (daily?) flight rate, which therefore implies a fully reusable rocket.

    I guess Paul Allen’s pockets are sufficiently deep to pitch this as a high altitude launch pad for other people’s RLVs. However, I suspect it will take even deeper pockets to deliver an RLV that can make best use of this capability (e.g. 250t GLOM delivering ~10t to LEO) and at least 3-5 years to develop/test before commencing revenue earning flights.

  • therealdmt

    True, dat

  • Terry Stetler
  • Larry J

    If, as I suspect, Stratolaunch offered OATK a lower price for aircraft lift services than what it takes to maintain and operate their L-1011, that can translate into lower, more competitive costs for Pegasus. It costs a lot of money to keep an airplane and crew certified to fly, even if the plane never takes off. I used to own a small private plane and had a lot of exposure to fixed costs. I shutter to think of the fixed costs for an L-1011.

    In addition to the routine maintenance costs, they have to keep their crew rated. That either means flying the plane a minimum number of hours to maintain proficiency or doing crew training in a simulator. Since very few L-1011s are still flying, they might have to operate their own simulator or pay for an outside company to operate and maintain an aging L-1011 simulator.

  • Barmaglot

    And how would the upkeep on a totally-unique, six-engine monstrosity built out of spare parts be any lower than on a commercial airliner, even an old one?

    Re:Simulator – with L-1011, at least an option for a simulator exists. With Stratolaunch, they’ll have to either fly the thing for real, or build a bespoke simulator solution themselves.

  • Larry J

    That wouldn’t be OATK’s problem. If StratoLaunch offers them a fixed price for carrier services that’s cheaper than maintaining their own plane, it’s to their advantage to do it. If StratoLaunch is only now signing an agreement with NASA for engine testing, it’ll be years before their own rocket is ready to fly. StratoLaunch doesn’t have to make a profit on these launches and some money coming in is better than nothing. They’d also gain operational experience at performing airborne space launches.