A history, as it approaches first air under the gear. As I noted in an email to the person who sent me the link:

“Stratolaunch has never made any sense to me as a business. Gary [Hudson]’s theory is that it’s the Glomar Explorer of space: a civilian cover for a black operation (in this case, perhaps as an X-37 launcher capable of single-orbit rendezvous). But it seems nutty to me to make your business dependent on a single carrier aircraft. Orbital got away with it with the Tri-Star but at least there they could have gone to the boneyard for another one if they’d lost it. Look how much time it’s taken to even do taxi tests with a single vehicle. And they only this week announced (again) their plans for the orbital launcher, now not to fly until 2022, over a decade after that press conference.”

I also think that Allen placed entirely too much faith in Burt, who is an aviation genius, but not necessarily a space guy.

20 thoughts on “Stratolaunch”

  1. Gary and I have discussed this, and though I have a different idea about the purpose, mine is a variant on the Glomar Explorer. I thought it would be an ideal delivery vehicle for a 500,000 pound earth-penetrator bomb with which to destroy Iranian uranium separation facilities. Escorted into Iran with half of the US Air Force and Navy fighters and bombers, it could deliver a 0.5 kiloton non-nuclear punch at hundreds of feet underground. Bigger, with fuel-air explosives.

    But Burt has been dreaming of this for a lot longer than the (excellent) article stated. When I was trying to get TRW into the launch services business, we had Burt in to talk about fairings. It was the first time I had met him, and he was not very impressed with TRW in general. But he did talk about this big airplane he had in mind. Not long after, Ed Tuck told me that Burt was planning to build this huge airplane up in Colorado.

    I think the plane was always the thing for Burt. I had actually offered him a royalty-free license for my tow-launch concept as he went for the XPRIZE, and it would have saved the development cost of White Knight One. His rejection of the offer was too quick for him to have thought things out. Years later, he did some tow-launch studies for Jerry Budd at NASA Armstrong, and concluded that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But his love for airplanes was such that he really wanted to develop that WK1.

  2. Though the two fuselages look identical, only the right one has a cockpit, largely preserved from one of the 747s, with a throttle, foot pedal, and even some analog displays that a commercial pilot working in the 1970s might find familiar.

    Accepting that you can’t trust anything the media writes; this cockpit seems odd. I was recently in a De Havilland Beaver with a glass cockpit. I’ve seen a Martin Mars with a glass cockpit. I’m skeptical anyone would spend so much to build a new plane like this, and then go bargain basement on the avionics.

    So let’s test my hypothesis with some evidence. Wow, that’s look a lot like a 747-400 cockpit, which first flew in 1988. The 747-300 still was mostly analog gauges, but it flew in 1983. A 747-200 cockpit would be familiar to a pilot from the 1970’s, but does this look like this?

    At this point, my lack of Gell-Mann amnesia kicks in, and I’m just not interested in what WIRED has to say about the topic anymore. Can’t they just report, without writing stupid commentary that totally discredits themselves? The line isn’t even that important, but since it is there; I read it, and it prevents me from believing the reporter knows anything first hand. I had to check the byline to see if Jayson Blair wrote the article. He claims to have been there, but if so, then either they showed him a different aircraft or he took terrible notes.

    1. “Accepting that you can’t trust anything the media writes; this cockpit seems odd. I was recently in a De Havilland Beaver with a glass cockpit. I’ve seen a Martin Mars with a glass cockpit. I’m skeptical anyone would spend so much to build a new plane like this, and then go bargain basement on the avionics.”

      My plane has a glass cockpit….but I also have a steam gauge airspeed indicator. So maybe that’s what’s going on inthe Strato-pit and the author is trying to be artsy

      1. I’m sure he intends to be artsy; but in doing so, his embellishments lack authenticity. Did your plane, assuming it existed, have a digital glass avionics back in 1979? Because that’s where the author went to: 1970s.

  3. Only one airframe? One bit of bad luck and the whole program is history… Color me skeptical. Should they name it the Spruce Goose II?

  4. I am not a member of the Elbert fan club; I agree with one of my mentors that Burt designs the best bad airplanes around, and to the extent that Burt’s legacy lives on at Scaled, it is to their detriment. Scaled is great at lightweight and inexpensive composite structure though.

  5. My thoughts exactly on only one airplane. You need at least two.
    As for Burt’s airplanes, it seems to me they have unusual design features for their own sake.
    Lots of interesting prototypes but apart from the Varieze/Longeze not may examples of each design built. The canard motorglider was a disaster for reasons well understood before it was built.

  6. Considering the technical challenges of building any launch system, my crude estimate is that Stratolaunch currently addresses maybe 10% of the effort needed to realize an operational system.

    Building the fully/highly reusable rocket vehicle needed to justify this approach, plus full-up system testing, is going to be the most expensive and time consuming part of this effort… assuming that’s their real goal?

    1. It is about as exciting as a new launch pad. Then again, NASA got great Press just for installing a new access arm to a launch pad. I recall, while visiting the STS-130 launch, that the new Ares MLP was completed and sitting aside the VAB. It had exceptional dimensions too, like twice as tall as the Shuttle MLP. It was exciting!

      1. The biggest advantage is that *Potentially* a launcher like this can relocate to wherever would be an optimum launch position. The Payload Booster just has to go “straight forward” + “straight up” to deliver the payload to Outer Space.

        Is that “enough” to justify all of the drawbacks — color me skeptical at this point

        1. Me too. But I don’t mind people trying things. You never know what you might learn.

          Better than leaving all launch capability to NASA.

        2. Removing tongue from cheek; I realize my complaint earlier about the WIRED article, and my attempt at sarcasm, might suggest I believe in the Stratolaunch concept. Actually, I do think it is a reasonable idea. And while I get the concern about a single airframe; NASA worked well with one modified B-52 for a long time.

          That said; this new Stratolaunch plane is remarkable in and of itself. As a business interest, it is hardly different than SeaLaunch, which is no longer a business although some of the assets have found a new life. At least SeaLaunch had both a launch platform and a stage for reaching orbit. SeaLaunch also had over 2/3rds the Earth’s surface to work from.

          The idea that Stratolaunch can use any latitude is questionable. That has to be a very thirst platform that will become even more thirsty when loaded down with a booster. Can the mothership be air refueled? Nope. So it has to land and refuel, likely often. I doubt there are many locations that can accommodate a laden Stratolaunch. And would they if that booster vehicle is fueled too? And if the booster isn’t fueled; then you need the ability to load the fuel elsewhere.

          1. The booster could be moved separately. I assume that if they needed high inclination, Birdzilla could self ferry to (e.g.) Eielsen and launch from 82 degrees for sun synch..

  7. Build sixty and put a rotary launcher in the middle that launches small, single warhead ICBMs.

    Fly racetracks over parts of the pacific.

    You have a cross between a strategic bomber and a submarine. Should be able to keep 20 on station.

  8. I have supported the concept of air launch systems since the mid-1980’s. However, the main problem with any subsonic, low altitude release system is that the company must deal with the huge problem of designing, building and testing an airframe, which has many more structural issues than a rocket. The airframe has wing attachments, wheels, flaps, etc., while the rocket is a relatively simple cylinder with most thrust directed along the cylinder.

    For all of this huge effort, a subsonic plane that releases a rocket is only contributing a small fraction of the orbital velocity to the payload. Now that multiple companies have perfected the vertical landing rocket system first demonstrated in 1993 by the DC-X, and which does not need heavy wings or wheels, the comparative usefulness of air launch is greatly reduced. If an air-launcher could reach the speed of a Blackbird, its usefulness would be much greater, but the cost of developing such a vehicle would be huge.

    On the other hand, the potential of airbreathing launchers is still waiting for technology to reach some useful level. If a launcher of any kind that can reach hypersonic velocity using the oxygen in the air, it would represent almost as great a step forward as reusability.

    John Strickland

Comments are closed.