Surprise! Huntsville Joins the Commercial Space Race

Startled residents of Huntsville awoke yesterday (providing they slept in until at least 1:07 p.m. CST) to what probably sounded like an earthquake, sonic boom and a bazillion car alarms going off all at once. Their self-proclaimed New Federal City (named for its many thousands of government-supported jobs)  that had fought NewSpace tooth and nail found itself suddenly at the center of the biggest, boldest, baddest commercial space venture since….like EVER. We’re talking bolder than Branson, bigger than Bigelow, and maybe even badder than Bronson.*

Just how big? Try two 747s put together big. With six jumbo jet engines, a gross weight of 1.2 million pound, and a wingspan of more than 380 feet. And how super bad is the dream team behind it? Try Microsoft billionaire co-founder Paul Allen; aviation legend Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites; Elon Musk and SpaceX; and Huntsville’s own Dynetics.

The headquarters for this new Stratolaunch Systems venture? Huntsville, Alabama. NewSpace City.

Pretty epic, huh?

The Huntsville Times has some details about local operations and reactions in a story today titled, With one press conference, Paul Allen puts Huntsville in commercial space race:

The new company’s headquarters will be in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park, and it will grow from about 40 employees now to more than 100 in the coming months. Future growth depends on the market for its products…

After the press conference, Steve Cook, director of space technologies for Dynetics, called the new company “one of the most ambitious commercial space programs ever attempted.” It puts Huntsville in the private space race, Cook said.

Mayor Tommy Battle agreed, calling the new company “a great opportunity for Huntsville” late Tuesday. Battle said the city will now a player in low-earth orbit flights with Stratolaunch and deep-space missions with NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket being developed at Marshall. “We have the synergy here for rocket propulsion,” Battle said.

Cook said Dynetics will build and assemble the hardware needed to mate the rockets to the plane at a 226,000-square-foot structure under construction in Huntsville. The company will also do the systems engineering to control the launches, he said.

Dynetics Vice President David King, a former Marshall director and space shuttle launch director, is also on the new company’s board, along with executives from SpaceX and Allen’s investment company.

Stratolaunch will not lack for people with launch experience: the company is relying heavily upon veterans of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. CEO Gary Wentz is a former chief systems engineer at the space center. Dynetics outlined some of the other ties and its business plans to provide integration services in a press release:

“Dynetics has a world class team of launch, propulsion and aircraft experts leading this program, including David King, a former Shuttle launch director and Marshall Space Flight Center director; Steve Cook, former Ares Launch Vehicle projects manager; Mark Fisher, former Marshall Space Flight Center liquid engines program manager and the technical director for this project, Jim Halsell, former U.S. Air Force test pilot, SR-71 pilot and Shuttle pilot and commander,” said Dynetics CEO Marc Bendickson.

Work on the air launch system will be accomplished in Dynetics’ new state-of-the-art, 226,500-square-foot prototyping center in Huntsville.

Dynamic Concepts, Inc. and Tri Vector Services Inc. are currently working with Dynetics on this project. “We are proud to have two local small businesses supporting our efforts,” said Bendickson.

Although Huntsville will see job growth, other cities will benefit as well. The carrier aircraft will be built and tested in Mojave, Calif., while the booster rocket will be built by SpaceX at his facility in Hawthorne, Calif. Stratolaunch officials say they are in discussions with several spaceports to serve as a base of operation, including the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. KSC has a 15,000 foot runway used for space shuttle flights that is longer than the 12,000 foot runway required for the carrier aircraft.

* Tough guy actor Charles Bronson