New Stratolaunch Photos Show World’s Largest Aircraft

Carrier aircraft cabin and wing (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Stratolaunch has revamped its website with some new photos of its gigantic carrier aircraft under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Carrier aircraft cabin (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The twin fuselage airplane will be the largest aircraft in the world, with a 385-foot wing span. Powered by six Boeing 747 engines, the aircraft will have a payload of more than 500,000 lbs. (226,796 kg) and an operational range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles (3,715 km).

Aircraft undercarriage (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The Stratolaunch aircraft is designed to air launch launch vehicles. The company has an agreement with Orbital ATK to use its Pegasus small-satellite booster.

Carrier aircraft with Pegasus boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

In March, billionaire backer Paul Allen has said he hopes the carrier aircraft will make its first flight test by the end of the year.

Carrier aircraft tail (Credit: Stratolaunch)

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Trump Appoints New Members of NASA Transition Team

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

President Elect Donald Trump has appointed six new members to the NASA transition team, including Steve Cook, who formerly managed the agency’s Ares program, and retired astronaut Sandra Magnus.

Steve Cook, acting president of Dynetics Technical Services in Huntsville, Ala., led NASA’s Ares program from July 2005 to August 2009. The program included the Ares I and Ares V heavy-lift vehicle and the Orion crew spacecraft for deep-space exploration.

The Obama Administration canceled the programs. However, Congress resurrected the Ares V as the Space Launch System and kept the Orion program in place.

At Dynetics, Cook has been involved in support Aerojet Rocketdyne’s development of the AR-1 engine. He also supported the company’s work on Stratolaunch Systems’ aircraft, which is designed to air launch satellite boosters.

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Stratolaunch: How Very Soon is Now?

It’s been a while since we last checked in with Mojave’s largest — and most media shy — space project, Stratolaunch (whose carrier aircraft has been dubbed Carbon Goose, Composite Goose and — for no discernible reason — Birdzilla).

Some of you may recall there was a burst of publicity about the project back in June. A group of journalists were allowed into the project’s giant hangar to view the world’s largest airplane, then 76 percent complete. The circle of invitees appeared rather small, limited to those who had not (ahem) impertinently nicknamed the aircraft Birdzilla.

About a week later, Chuck Beames gave a talk about Stratolaunch at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace Conference in Seattle. Beames said all the right things — program on track, everything going well, can’t wait to fly, etc.

Unfortunately, his talk sounded a lot like the one he had given at the same conference the previous July in San Jose. In 2015, he said the company was due to announce what rocket(s) the aircraft would air launch in the fall. That time came and it went. In Seattle, he promised announcements “very soon.” In fact, he had hoped to announce them at the conference.

Three months later, construction on the mammoth carrier aircraft continues on Riccomini Street with no announcement of what rocket(s) the airplane will air launch. Clearly, the definition of “soon” is a rather elastic one in the space industry.

After going through SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the company talked to anyone and everyone with a rocket engine or an idea for one. They must have hit pay dirt with someone. Otherwise, the giant aircraft will likely share the fate of its nicknamesake, Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, which flew once before becoming a museum piece.

XS-1 Moves Forward, Stratolaunch Booster Remains Mystery

Credit: DARPA
Credit: DARPA

A couple of program updates that I wrote for Space.com in recent weeks:

US Military’s Satellite-Launching XS-1 Space Plane Could Fly in 2019

DARPA has received authorization to spend $146 million on the next phases of the program, which is enough to select one of the three companies and move forward. It’s not enough to finish the program, so the selected company will need to come up with funds of its own. DARPA hopes to down select by the end of the year.

Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman are the leads for phase 1 of the program. However, phases 2 and 3 are open to all U.S. aerospace companies. DARPA had an industry day for the project on April 29.

What lies at the end of the rainbow. Stratolaunch Systems, that's what. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
What lies at the end of the rainbow? Stratolaunch Systems, that’s what. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Rocket for Giant Satellite-Launching Stratolaunch Airplane Remains a Mystery

Birdzilla remains more zilla than bird. The plane is still under construction, but the company has yet to announce what rocket(s) it will use.

The most recent update I’ve heard through the grapevine is that much of the aircraft is assembled. That’s a good sign, but it could also mean that much of the interior work — which can take a long time — remains to be done.

Last year, the company said it were considering more than 70 different booster configurations, which means they were talking to everyone and anyone with a rocket, an engine or plans for them.

In July, I asked Chuck Beames whether Burt Rutan & Scaled has once again put the flying machine ahead of the rocket, as they did with SpaceShipTwo. He said no, and assured me that they would make an announcement about the booster(s) in the fall.

That time came and went. Officials now say that they expect to make a series of announcements in the coming future.

Stratolaunch Appoints New CEO From Orbital ATK

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

SEATTLE (Vulcan PR) — Jean Floyd has been named CEO of Stratolaunch Systems, which will change how the world approaches and utilizes space by challenging the current model of orbital launches. Floyd joins us with over thirty years of industry experience and is uniquely qualified to oversee and lead the testing and evaluation phase of the carrier aircraft. Floyd succeeds Gary Wentz who successfully led the project since 2011.
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Stratolaunch Dumps Orbital ATK Rocket as Aircraft Encounters Problems

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
Stratolaunch carrier aircraft under construction in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

Stratolaunch Systems has quietly dumped Orbital ATK’s rocket from its air-launch system:

As recently as last fall, Beames spoke about a plan to put a human-crewed spacecraft developed by Sierra Nevada on the tip of the Orbital booster rocket.

But now that human spaceflight plan is shelved, along with Orbital’s planned rocket.

Beames said Orbital’s rocket “was not hitting the economic sweet spot to generate revenue,” so Vulcan has reopened the design plan and is “evaluating over 70 different launch vehicle variants.”
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2014 in Review: Mojave’s Difficult Year

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)
Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

“2014 will be a fun ride. We welcome you to get onboard, strap in and hold on!”

Stu Witt

CEO & General Manager
Mojave Air and Space Port
Jan. 9, 2014

Stu Witt had a lot of reasons to be optimistic as 2014 began. The Mojave spaceport was on a roll. On Jan. 10, Scaled Composites conducted the third powered flight of SpaceShipTwo in less than 9 months. XCOR was making steady progress on the Lynx and a new hydrogen engine for ULA, Stratolaunch was busy building the world’s largest aircraft, and other tenants such as Masten and Firestar had successes over the past year.

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Rutan Receives Patent for Towed Air-Launch System

rutan_talkBurt Rutan has received U.S. patent No. 8,727,264 for an air-towed launch system. The summary reads:

An orbital launch system and its method of operation use a maneuver to improve the launch condition of a booster rocket and payload. A towed launch aircraft, to which the booster rocket is mounted, is towed to a predetermined elevation and airspeed. The towed launch aircraft begins the maneuver by increasing its lift, thereby increasing the flight path angle, which increases the tension on the towline connecting the towed launch aircraft to a towing aircraft. The increased tension accelerates the towed launch aircraft and booster rocket, while decreasing the speed (and thus the kinetic energy) of the towing aircraft, while increasing kinetic energy of the towed launch aircraft and booster rocket by transferring energy from the towing aircraft. The potential energy of the towed launch aircraft and booster rocket is also increased, due to the increased lift. The booster rocket is released and ignited, completing the launch.

It’s a bit complicated, but does anyone think this approach could be applied to Birdzilla (aka, Stratolaunch)?

Ansari X Prize 10th Anniversary Celebration Webcast

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)
Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

ANSARI XPRIZE 10th ANNIVERSARY WEBCAST
Saturday, October 4, 2014
4:00 to 5:30 p.m. EDT
(1:00 to 2:30 p.m. PDT)

Host: Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE Founder and CEO

Guests

Anousheh Ansari
Ansari X Prize benefactor

Chuck Beames
Executive Director, Stratolaunch

Brian Binnie
SpaceShipOne’s pilot for the prize winning flight

Mike Melvill
SpaceShipOne’s pilot for the first record-breaking flight

Burt Rutan
SpaceShipOne designer

Richard Branson
Founder, Virgin Group

Additional Details

A Closer Look at the UK’s Commercial Space Review

Earth_from_space_graphic
Following the release of the document, “UK Government Review of Commercial Spaceplane Certification and Operations: Summary and Conclusions,” almost all media attention focused on one element of the report: the 8 candidate sites for the nation’s first spaceport.

This laser focus is easy to understand. The fierce, tooth-and-nail competition to land some big government project will be fun to watch. And spaceports are super cool. Well, they are when space planes are actually flying to space. When like a decade goes by with people promising imminent spaceflights without a single one taking place, spaceports become a lot less cool.  (I’m looking at you…everybody in Mojave!)

But, I digress. I went through the 80-page document and the 321-page technical report its based on so you don’t have to. Why would I do this? Because you guys are the best! You’re very welcome.

Key excerpts follow with commentary as appropriate. Read away!

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Launch Provider Panel at Space Tech Expo

Inaugural Vega flight. (Credits: ESA - S. Corvaja, 2012)
Inaugural Vega flight. (Credits: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2012)

At the Space Tech Expo last week in Long Beach, Calif., representatives from Arianespace, Orbital Sciences Corporation, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed the fierce competition in the industry and their plans for the future.

PANELISTS

Carissa Christensen
Managing Partner
The Tauri Group
(Moderator)

Gwynne Shotwell
President & Chief Operating Officer
SpaceX

Daniel J Collins
Chief Operating Officer
United Launch Alliance

Clay Mowry
President
Arianespace

Frank Culbertson
Executive Vice President
Orbital Sciences Corporation

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Ex-Scaled Composites Boss Doug Shane Moves Over to The Spaceship Company

Doug_Shane
Doug Shane

MOJAVE, Calif. (VG PR) — Virgin Galactic today announced the appointment of Doug Shane as Executive Vice President and General Manager of The Spaceship Company (TSC). Shane joins the company after a 31 year career at Scaled Composites LLC (Scaled), where he served as that company’s President for five years. He will report directly to George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and TSC.

As the company progresses through its successful test flight program and approaches the start of commercial service with SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic has tapped Shane to oversee its manufacturing company, TSC, which has already begun the construction of the second set of SpaceShipTwo spaceships and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. TSC began as a joint venture between Virgin and Scaled, until 2012, when Virgin Galactic acquired full ownership of the venture.

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