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IT’S ALIVE! Stratolaunch’s Roc Aircraft Flies for First Time in 2 Years

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 29, 2021
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Stratolaunch overhead (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Flight signals revival of giant airplane, which will focus on launching hypersonic test vehicles.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For the first time in 2 years 16 days, Stratolaunch’s massive Roc aircraft roared down the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and soared into in clear blue sky on only its second ever flight test.

Roc took off at 7:31 a.m. PDT time, trailing a giant cloud of dust stirred up by its six jet engines and giant 385-ft long wings that hung out over the desert scrub brush. The aircraft flew over the Mojave Desert for more than three hours as a crowd that had gathered for takeoff watched.

Roc takes off from the Mojave Air and Space Port on April 29, 2021. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Roc made two low passes over the runway before touching down on its third approach after a flight that lasted 3 hours 14 minutes. The airplane’s maiden test flight in 2019 lasted 2 hour 29 minute.

Stratolaunch Chief Operating Officer Zachary Krevor declared the flight test to be an “extremely successful” one that accomplished all its objectives. Engineers were happy with the condition of the aircraft after it landed, he said.

Stratolaunch after takeoff on its second flight test. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

A source who insisted on anonymity told Parabolic Arc that the flight tested out a number of modifications made to Roc since the first flight test. Engineers installed a yaw damper to address the aircraft’s susceptibility to Dutch roll. Wikipedia describes the problem as “a type of aircraft motion consisting of an out-of-phase combination of ‘tail-wagging’ (yaw) and rocking from side to side (roll).” Stratolaunch has two enormous tails.

Spectators watch as Stratolaunch’s Roc aircraft approaches runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit; Douglas Messier)

Roc’s flight followed two attempts last week that were scrubbed due to high winds. This time, the winds were calm enough to allow for takeoff and landing.

The successful flight test bodes well for the company’s plans to launch hypersonic test vehicles and eventually an orbital space plane from under the giant wing that connects the dual fuselages.

Talon A hypersonic vehicle (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Stratolaunch is developing the reusable hypersonic Talon A vehicle, which will be capable of flying at speeds between Mach 5 to March 7. The 28-foot long vehicle will have a wingspan of 11.3 feet and a launch weight of approximately 6,000 lbs.

The company is also planning a larger hypersonic test vehicle called Talon Z, and a Black Ice space plane capable of taking cargo and possibly people into orbit.

Talon Z (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The company’s focus on hypersonic test vehicles marks a significant change from the original purpose of Roc. The aircraft was originally conceived by Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a launch platform for a medium rocket that would send satellites and human space vehicles into Earth orbit. The pair unveiled the project publicly in December 2011 after about a year in stealth mode.

Roc on approach (Credit: Douglas Messier)

While development of Roc progressed, Stratolaunch struggled for much of the 2010’s to find a launch vehicle suitable for the giant aircraft. Partnerships with SpaceX and Orbital ATK ended without any hardware being produced. A deal with Firefly Space Systems also fell through.

Stratolaunch purchased two of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL small-satellite rockets to fly while the company embarked upon a project to develop its own fleet of launch vehicles. Neither plan would bear fruit.

Roc on approach at Mojave. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In October 2018, Stratolaunch suffered a major blow as Allen lost his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 65 without ever having seen Roc fly. The decision about what to do with Stratolaunch and the rest of Allen’s vast estate fell to his sister, Jody Allen, who was reportedly not interested in her brother’s space projects.

Stratolaunch conducted Roc’s maiden flight test in April 2019. The company shut down at the end of the following month, and put itself up for sale at a reported price of $400 million.

In October 2019, Stratolaunch was sold to Cerberus Capital Management, a company that specializes in purchasing distressed companies. No sales price was announced, but a source said Cerberus paid $300 million. Stratolaunch had spent $900 million getting to the first flight in April 2019, the source added.