Stratolaunch’s New Launch Payload: A Vehicle the Size of the Space Shuttle

Straolaunch aircraft on the Mojave runway. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The Washington Post has a story about Stratolaunch that contains this interesting piece of news from backer Paul Allen and CEO Jean Floyd.

But Allen has even bigger ambitions for Stratolaunch and is considering pairing it with a new space shuttle that’s known inside the company as Black Ice….

“I would love to see us have a full reusable system and have weekly, if not more often, airport-style, repeatable operations going,” Allen said in an interview in his Seattle office.

The Black Ice space plane — should it be built — would be about as big as the former space shuttle developed by NASA and capable of staying up for at least three days. It could be launched from virtually anywhere in the world, as long as the runway could accommodate Stratolaunch’s size. And it would be capable of flying to the International Space Station, taking satellites and experiments to orbit, and maybe one day even people — though there are no plans for that in the near-term.

Then it would land back on the runway, ready to fly again.

“You make your rocket a plane,” Floyd said. “So, you have an airplane carrying a plane that’s fully reusable. You don’t throw anything away ever. Only fuel.”

According to the story they will make a decision whether to pursue the shuttle after getting Stratolaunch gets airborne. The article says that could happen this year, but I’ve heard it won’t occur until sometime in 2019. We’ll see who’s right.

Stratolaunch has gone through several iterations of what it planned to launch from that giant plane. First, it was a medium-sized rocket that would launch satellites and a scaled-down version of the Dream Chaser. Then they focused on the smallsat market with the Pegasus rocket. And now it’s a vehicle about the same size as the space shuttle.

A fully-reusable space plane that could be flown with aircraft-like operations has been a dream of everyone involved in space since the days of Buck Rogers. Lots of bucks have been spent trying to build one, but nobody’s succeeded yet.

Whether these guys have a viable plan for one…who knows? We don’t have enough information to make any judgment one way or the other.

Black Ice is an interesting name for the project. The plane’s being built here in the Mojave Desert. The vehicle is named after ice. Nice contrast there, I suppose. It kind of works.

However, the name also has some bad connotations. Black ice is a transparent coating of ice on a roadway that can be really dangerous. You typically don’t know its there until you’re driving on it. And then you hope you don’t spin out of control and have a bad day.

So, we’ll see what happens. Maybe Black Ice will actually pan out better than the boosters that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences were designing for the aircraft.