Release the Kraken: Stratolaunch Ramps Up Plans for Flights

Air-launched boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Wired has an entertaining story by Steven Levy about what Paul Allen and the team at Scaled Composites have been doing with Stratolaunch, whose enormous carrier plane nicknamed the Roc but also know as Composite Goose, Carbon Goose, Birdzilla and Stratosaurus.

As you might recall, Stratolaunch originally had deals with SpaceX and then Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) to build the carrier rocket the airplane would air launch. Neither of those worked out, so the company talked to everyone in the industry with a rocket or an idea for one before settling on Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL.

Pegasus XL wasn’t a long-term solution, however. For once, it already had a carrier aircraft — a L-1011 jetliner named Stargazer — that was parked just down the Mojave flight line from the Stratolaunch hangar. Second, it was an expensive booster only capable of lofting small satellites into Earth orbit — not a great fit for an aircraft with a 385 foot wingspan even if you launch three of them on a single flight.

A larger booster was needed. But what? They had already talked to everyone. It looked bad….

But then the company’s engineers realized that new technologies, especially 3-D printing, would be more efficient. “You can just print these engines almost from scratch for so much less,” Allen says, estimating that a new engine can be printed for about a fifth of the cost of repurposing space shuttle overstock. Strato­launch formed a team of rocket designers, led by SpaceX’s former head of propulsion, Jeff Thornburg. The company will test its engines at a NASA facility in Stennis, Mississippi.

Sharing their road map publicly for the first time, Thornburg and [CEO Jean] Floyd laid out their plans for Stratolaunch: Its first custom rocket ship will be considerably bigger than the Pegasus, able to transport multiple satellites or other payloads. This medium-size rocket is nicknamed Kraken, after the legendary Icelandic sea monster. Floyd says customers will be able to use it to get satellites into low Earth orbit for less than $30 million, a competitive price and about half of what SpaceX charges for a launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Floyd estimates that Kraken will be operational in 2022.

But, there’s more. Stratolaunch wasn’t built just to launch boring old communications satellites. That’s not what Burt Rutan had in mind when he conceived it.

The next steps are more ambitious. In a project codenamed Black Ice, Stratolaunch is designing reusable space planes that will take off from the big airplane and go into orbit. The first one will be programmed to open its bay doors once in orbit and release its payload, perhaps even a fleet of satellites, into space. And then it will return to Earth. The idea is not all that different from the original space shuttle, which was a reusable vehicle that could also steer itself down from orbit to land on a runway. It can “come back and land at Mojave where the plane is waiting, the fuel system is waiting,” Floyd says. “You roll up underneath the plane, you refuel, you put the next payload in, and you go again.” Finally, Stratolaunch aims to build a second version of Black Ice that can carry astronauts. That ship won’t be flying for at least a decade.

Every time I’ve had the jaw-dropping experience of seeing that plane, I have a recurring vision. The massive thing just keeps rolling down runway 12-30, all 12,0503 ft of it, before getting about five feet off the ground, slamming into the airport’s exterior fence and then shattering into a million pieces on the railroad embankment just beyond it.

This happens to be the area where photographer Ken Brown and I typically capture Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo as it takes off with SpaceShipTwo. So, I had pretty much made up my mind that we would not be there whenever Stratolaunch tries to take to the air.

However, Levy discovered that taking off may be the least of Stratolaunch’s problems when he did a simulator run with chief test pilot Chris Guarente, also known as Duff.

“Every objective you have during that flight is based on ‘What do I need to do to know I can land this airplane,’ ” says Duff, who flew F-16s in the military. On Stratolaunch’s maiden voyage, the pilots won’t even retract the landing gear. “It’s just one more thing that could go wrong,” Duff tells me. He repeats once more, as if I’d missed it, “The mission is to familiarize the pilot and make sure the airplane is capable of landing.”

I mention that it’s a bit alarming to hear him talk about the plane’s ability to land in the conditional. “We do believe it is capable of landing,” Duff says. “But this is the first time you find out if it really is.”

One tricky part of the landing, Scaled’s [Matthew] Stinemetze says, might be handling a touchdown from one side of an awkward two-fuselage configuration. “You can touch that other boom down before you’re on the ground, so there’s all these weird things that can happen,” he says.

That’s good to know. It will definitely help inform my decisions about where exactly watch the first flight of this behemoth.

  • Terry Stetler

    I would think prospective Roc drivers would benefit from right-seat time on White Knight Two.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    Touching down on one side is the preferred, standard technique. However, why not do a kickout? It’s a maneuver where the airplane crabs on final, and a deft yaw input is applied right before the touchdown to straighten it out. The more massive an airplane is, the more advantageous a kickout becomes.

  • 76 er

    In any case it will certainly be a unique experience for the test pilots.

  • therealdmt

    “The Composite Goose” — I like that 😀

  • Lee

    Leaving the landing gear down for the first flight of a new airplane is SOP during testing. Nothing new there. Also, you don’t really know if any new aircraft (especially a large one) can safely land until you’ve actually done it. Thus, nothing new or alarming in the test pilot’s comments. It’s exactly what one familiar with flight test would expect him to say…

  • Robert G. Oler

    exactly

  • Robert G. Oler

    because no turbojet aircraft has that as its preferred Xwind technique especially one with trucks on the gear…the more massive an airplane is the less advantageous a kickout becomes 🙂 sorry

  • ThomasLMatula

    Just a thought, but has either of the test pilots flown White Knight Two? Although much smaller it is the only twin boom aircraft out there, so it wouldn’t hurt to do some touch and go’s in it.

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually there are a number of twin boon aircraft, P-38, for example.

  • Cameron

    I cannot see any reason why it would not fly and land just fine? A lot of negativity expressed here, but I cannot find any justification for it?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, but the pilot is in the center between the booms, not off to one side. The F-82 was designed that way, but I don’t believe they have restored one to flying condition yet. The Germans had a couple designs in WW II, but that is it except for Scaled Composites’ White Knight One, White Knight 2 and the Stratolauncher.

  • Michael Halpern

    There are pretty good simulators too, plus its fly by wire

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Actually time in a B-52 is more useful in landing a very large aircraft with disperse landing gears and 6+ engines. That being said. No one have flown a large twin fuselage jet aircraft before AFAIK.

    Wonder if one of the qualification required to piloted the Roc is the the ability to move 6 throttle levers simultaneously.

  • Larry J

    I think you’re wrong about that. I’ve seen many videos of large airliners kick the rudder at the last moment when landing in a strong crosswind. Here’s an example of an Airbus A380 doing just that.
    https://youtu.be/NHw1QDn5mxM

  • AdmBenson

    Considering that Roc has a payload capacity similar to the An-225, maybe it could launch a MAKS lookalike.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAKS_(spacecraft)

  • Lee

    It’s an untested design. Things can and do regularly go wrong with such aircraft. That’s not negativity, it’s a statement of fact. What are you basing your assertion that the plane will fly and land fine on? General engineering knowledge? Detailed engineering knowledge of this particular plane? Personal experience with flight test? Or something else? It would be good to know.

  • Cameron

    Nope, I made no such assertion. I just cannot see any reason to suggest it might run off the runway and be destroyed. Apparently neither can you or anyone else?

  • Lee

    We’re not saying that it won’t fly and land fine. We’re saying that there is no way to know for sure until it is actually flown. Which, based on his comments, is exactly what the test pilot is saying.

    You, on the other hand, appear to be assuming it will fly fine for reasons you still haven’t elucidated. If you’re just going on blind faith in Rutan, please remember that blind faith is generally gets people killed. That’s why test pilots don’t have blind faith in anything.

  • Cameron

    Please stop beating that poor straw-man.

  • envy
  • Robert G. Oler

    no

    The Airbus 380 and B777 and 787 are fly by wire …the pilot doesnt touch the rudder pedals but the FBW system executes the control movements to accomplish a particular task

    in this case it is the post flare “get the nose straight before the nosewheel touches down” and …

    well what I use to have to do with the rudder pedals after the 757/767/707/737/727 that I use to fly as the “trucks” touched down…now I dont have to…the FBW does it as a function of control wheel movement

    you will notice the Airbus driver always uses the crab…it is near perfect technique

    Robert the ex USN Test Aviator and Boeing test pilot (and now B777 TRI/TRE DPE

    safe flights

  • Robert G. Oler

    its not that hard. I know people who flew the F82 and Twin Ercoupe 🙂

  • Eric Thiel

    DARPA is trying to work on a space plane, do they have an option here?

  • AdmBenson

    SNC/Stratolaunch were planning to use a 3 stage, solid, expendable booster to put a 3/4th size Dreamchaser into orbit. Cool, but not cheap on a per kilogram basis. MAKS was planned to put a small, reusable space shuttle into orbit with a 7 ton cargo in the payload bay. The liquid fuel engines would return with the orbiter and the only expendable part was the big drop tank. Also cool, and economical if it worked. Of course, both are paper rockets, so it’s kind of a wash as to which one is the better concept.

  • patb2009

    well it’s somewhat restricted where it can fly out of.

  • envy

    Big drop tanks (that are carried to orbit) are considerably more expensive than solids. The Shuttle ET cost about 4 times as much as both of its SRBs combined. Such tanks have to be superlightweight and still very strong, they aren’t just tin cans.

  • AdmBenson

    “superlightweight and still very strong”

    Sounds like a job for air launching and avoiding the need for strap-on boosters.

    By the way, there were 3 proposed versions of MAKS, one of which, MAKS-M, would only put a small payload into orbit, but was fully reusable without the drop tank.

    I think it would be interesting to see what kind of vehicles you could launch with Roc if you assume liquid fuel propulsion and extremely powerful engines like Aerojet AR-1’s. Also, Roc might be a good test bed for launching an aerospike powered SSTO.

  • envy

    The heavy but very strong SRBs actually allowed the tank to be much weaker than it would have been otherwise. But drop tanks at that scale are always expensive.

    MAKS-M was a neat idea. It would have been great for replacing Soyuz and Progress for ISS service. It’s very comparable to what Stratolaunch will need for their spaceplane to work.