What Is Paul Allen’s Venture Really For?

While last week’s news about the new privately-funded air-launch system was exciting, many industry observers have been scratching their heads over aspects of it that don’t seem to quite add up, from both business and technical perspectives.

One of the first industry analysts to question it, and issue a contrarian view, was Jeff Foust, over at the NewSpace Journal. He notes that the projected costs for the aircraft are far lower than any standard cost model would indicate, even taking into account the innovation of Scaled Composites. For instance, Paul Allen estimated it would cost about ten times what he spent on SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne for the X-Prize, or on the order of three hundred million dollars. But reportedly, that is about what Virgin Galactic is spending on WhiteKnightTwo, so it seems unlikely that they would be able to build an aircraft so much larger for the same amount.

Foust also points out that the existing market for the vehicle is far too small to amortize the vehicle’s development costs, and that in that context it will face stiff competition from Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares (the rocket formerly known as Taurus II) and international players, for a Delta II class vehicle, and even SpaceX’s Falcon 9, with its low costs, despite the fact that it’s oversized for the mission.

There were other strange things about the announcement, which was rumored to have occurred last week to provide an explanation for the groundbreaking of the new giant hangar for the vehicle at Mojave Air and Spaceport, which was pretty hard to hide. One is that, while SpaceX is clearly a key player in the venture as described, no one from the company was represented at the press conference, other than Adam Harris, vice-president of government affairs (interesting choice for a supposedly commercial venture) who was sitting in the audience. Another is that Burt Rutan seemed to be there more for appearances, and not familiar with much of the system or its purpose other than the airplane.

Perhaps the aspect that industry analysts found most perplexing is the role of the Huntsville people: former NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Dynetics, with Dave King (former head of Marshall Spaceflight Center under Griffin) and Steve Cook (former head of the cancelled Constellation program). Despite the glitzy nature of their web site, what specific and relevant experience does Dynetics have with such an integration role that makes them uniquely suited to the task, particularly given that both aircraft and rocket will be developed in southern California, increasing program costs with a lot of travel?

And what value do people who presided over a major NASA program that spent many billions of dollars of taxpayer money with little to show for it, with a schedule slipping more than a year per year at the time it was ended, bring to a supposed fast, lean commercial venture? Stranger still was Griffin’s tepid endorsement of the concept at the presser: “I don’t know that it’s a better way, but it’s an approach which has a long history.” Nothing says “I’m excited about this program!” like “I don’t know that it’s a better way.”

Some have argued (including me, last week), given the market issues described above, and the additional complications introduced by air launch, that the market for this vehicle has to be one that a) doesn’t currently exist and b) demands the flexibility in launch azimuth, latitude and longitude to allow rendezvous with a target in a single orbit. The latter requirement is the only one that cannot be met by a conventional launcher from a conventional range. The most innocuous such market would be space passengers (particularly wealthy ones) who don’t want to sit in a cramped capsule for days waiting for their vehicle to catch up with an orbiting space facility.

But there is a problem with this rationale. Paul Allen himself said that humans would not be the initial payload — that they would want to develop a lot of confidence in the system before they would use it for that purpose.

Is there some other mission that would fit the above criteria?

To understand what it might be, a little non-space history may be instructive.

In 1968, a Soviet Golf-II Class ballistic missile submarine, carrying nuclear missiles and torpedoes, sank in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles northwest of Hawaii, in 17,000 feet of water. US intelligence agencies knew where it went down, but it became clear after observing a lot of searching by the Soviet Navy, that the Soviets did not, and had given up on finding it. The CIA was very interested in attempting to recover the vehicle for the intelligence it might provide, so not long after, they covertly talked to Howard Hughes, who under cover of building a vessel to look for manganese modules on the ocean floor, spent a couple hundred million dollars (for which he was no doubt surreptitiously reimbursed) to have Global Marine build a ship called the Glomar Explorer, capable of operating at great depths from the surface. In 1974, it headed off to the location of the sunk sub, ostensibly looking to explore and perhaps mine the sea floor, found the vessel, and without the Soviets having any idea what was going on, lifted part of the sub to the surface (though it broke in the process, and not all of it could be recovered). So it is not without precedent for a supposedly commercial project to act as a cover for a more interesting purpose.

With that in mind, let us consider one other feature of air launch. It not only allows the launch into a precise orbital location in an orbit plane, but it allows one to do it with no notice or warning. It’s hard to hide a launch from a launch site, because satellites can observe a rocket sitting there every day, and when it launches it can be easily tracked. But if an aircraft is sitting in a hangar, there’s no way to know if it is being prepared for a launch, and if it rolls out when there are no satellites overhead, no one will see it. And even if a ground observer reports that the aircraft has taken off, there is no easy way to track it out over an ocean where it will deploy its payload. In other words, it allows a stealth launch, with no immediate knowledge of the trajectory or target. In fact, this is doubtless one of the reasons that DARPA is interested in a similar, but much smaller system, for which bids are due today.

So if that’s the mission for this system, what might the payload be?

There is a vehicle in orbit right now, called the X-37, built by Boeing. A small unmanned space plane (it resembles a mini-shuttle), it has been up for months, and occasionally maneuvers to a new orbit. The new launch system was stated as having a 13,000 pound orbital capability. The X-37 weighs 11,000 pounds, which might provide margin if it was to be deployed to higher inclination or altitude orbits. Note that while the payload class of the new launch vehicle is the same as a Delta II, its fairing is much larger (the picture at the press conference shows it to be the same diameter as the Falcon 9, or twelve feet, as opposed to the Delta’s eight feet). The X-37, with its fifteen-foot wingspan, wouldn’t fit in that fairing, but it would fit nicely in the Falcon’s wider “hammerhead” fairing.

What would it do were it to rendezvous with a target of interest? Not that much is known about the capabilities of the vehicle, but at a minimum, it would be able to do a close-up inspection, on short notice, of any satellite in low earth orbit. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with other things it might do, given appropriate manipulators, tools and motivation.

Is this why Paul Allen is building what some are calling “Birdzilla“? If asked, he’ll likely have no comment, but there are a couple of additional pieces of the puzzle that fit quite nicely, and perhaps explains the Huntsville connection..

The first is that the Chief Operating Office of Stratolaunch is Susan Turner. She just happens to be the former head of the NASA MSFC X-37 program. Just a coincidence, probably.

The second is that one of Mike Griffin’s previous jobs was the head of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm in Arlington, Virginia.

Its source of funding? The Central Intelligence Agency. Make of all this what you will.

79 thoughts on “What Is Paul Allen’s Venture Really For?

  1. Larry J

    For instance, Paul Allen estimated it would cost about ten times what he spent on SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne for the X-Prize, or on the order of three hundred million dollars. But reportedly, that is about what Virgin Galactic is spending on WhiteKnightTwo, so it seems unlikely that they would be able to build an aircraft so much larger for the same amount.

    Some of the press accounts (such as this one state that the company is looking to buy two used 747s to salvage the engines, landing gear, cockpit and other useful systems. This would save many million dollars and shorten the development time considerably from having to buy or build new systems.

    You’re raising interesting points about the market for such launch capability. A 5 engine Falcon 9 derivative, unless it can be made reusable, isn’t going to be that much less expensive than a Falcon 9. You’d have to make a lot of launches to recoup the R&D costs for the airplane, the rocket and the launching systems. I’ve read the Delta II is likely at the end of the road unless ULA can find more customers so how much of a market is there for vehicles in this class?

    The X-37 is an interesting vehicle and being able to launch it on a smaller, less expensive vehicle would be desirable. Being able to launch it unobserved (other than launch detection satellites) would make it more desireable. Even that may not be enough of a market to justify the expense of this program.

    Air launch makes fast rendezvous far easier than a pad launch. However, several Gemini missions proved you don’t need two days to rendezvous with a target if you have sufficient delta-v. Gemini 11 was able to rendezvous with the Agena target vehicle on the first orbit.

    1. Rod

      The Gemini rendezvous’ were specifically designed. The Atlas/Agena targets were launched into the perfect orbit to be caught by the Gemini in the next few hours. Also, the Gemini XI launch window was all of 2 seconds long. If your target has been up there a while and/or not particularly wanting to be visited, you’ll need something different.

      1. Larry J

        Gemini was practicing fast rendezvous because that was the plan for the Apollo LM takeoff from the moon. If you have the need and are willing to spend the propellant, you can rendezvous in much less than two days even with the ISS. It isn’t easy but it can be done.

  2. Jim Davis

    Some have argued (including me, last week), given the market issues described above, and the additional complications introduced by air launch, that the market for this vehicle has to be one that a) doesn’t currently exist and b) demands the flexibility in launch azimuth, latitude and longitude to allow rendezvous with a target in a single orbit.

    Rand, this was an interesting analysis but I think you and others are overthinking this. I take it all at face value. These guys have convinced themselves and Allen that they can pull this off. Maybe they can and maybe they can’t. It won’t be the first time a billionaire has lost a lot of money pursuing a space venture. Walt Anderson and Andrew Beal spring to mind.

    For decades you and others have assured everyone that space projects can be done for a fraction of the costs of comparable big aerospace and government projects. These guys believe you. Why the suspicions?

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      Why the suspicions?

      I actually have more information. Have you been reading Arocket in the last few days? Look for the exchange between Henry Spencer and Claybaugh. It was also pretty clear that Burt doesn’t really know much about what’s going on.

      1. Trent Waddington

        That kind of conversation was exactly why I stopped reading arocket.. that and people deliberately trolling. Why can’t something just not make sense? Why has there to be some super secret reason for why a rich old space cadet is willing to drop his money on a dream?

        1. Leland

          Why has there to be some super secret reason for why a rich old space cadet is willing to drop his money on a dream?

          Because people who made their own wealth don’t tend to do stupid things to quickly lose it. If something doesn’t make sense, some call it nonsense.

          1. Larry J

            Some do and some don’t. A former boss of mine was an entrepreneur. He started a company and grew it to 600 employees doing over $60 million a year. He was the sole owner and lived in the same house the whole time. When he sold the company, he moved to Vegas and built his dream home. Within a few years, he was divorced and had gambled away all of the money. He was a terrific employer and a great guy except when it came to gambling.

            There are quite a few stories out there that aren’t too different from that of my former boss. Paul Allen is unlikely to be one of them.

  3. Rod

    I was thinking of something along the same lines, except the aircraft takes off from Diego Garcia, flies out to some point over the Persian/Arabian Gulf and drops the rocket. The first stage flies a mostly straight up ascent and then arcs over. The payload is about 75 tons of tungsten penetrator hitting the ground at Mach 8. Even if the Mullahs bury their enrichment facility under 1000 feet of granite, we’re going to get them.

    1. TheRadicalModerate

      That had occurred to me, too. But I don’t think you use DG as the launch point. If you launch south from about the Galapagos, you have an orbital track that’s totally over-water and winds up going right over Iran. I’ve long though that somebody must have developed a non-nuke penetrator technology for MIRV and MARV ICBMs, but to use those against Iran would scare the bejeezus out of the Russians. Coming up from the south keeps the Russians early-warning systems quiet (or at least well-informed enough not to freak out), and gets you a hell of a lot more kinetic energy to deliver to the target.

  4. B Lewis

    We discussed this over at Mr. Scott Lowther’s site. A little back-of-the-envelope work shows that with a lift capacity of 13,000+ lbs to orbit the system could easily put the Air Force X-37 OTV (11,000 lb) into space on an as-needed basis. It could of course (ignoring interface/fire control issues) also loft 490,000 lb worth of in-atmosphere whoop-ass, such as four air-launchable LGM-30 Minuteman III missiles (@ 86,000 lb), a missile pod packing either 140 cruise missiles of the AGM-129 class (@ 3,500 lb), or over 300 SLAM/Harpoon missiles (@1,523 lb), take your pick. Imagine the pucker state of the Chinese admiral in charge of the Taiwan invasion fleet when he sees a single aircraft ripple-firing 300 Harpoons at his battle group. It would be like a flying arsenal ship.

    Birdzilla could in fact carry to launch altitude a fully-loaded B-2A Spirit stealth bomber (336,500 lb) plus a couple of F-22A escort fighters (64,460 lb each). Not that there’d be any point to that, but it would sure look cool.

      1. George Turner

        Genius! A space-launched T-Rex – with head mounted LASERS!

        That fits with the recent Japanese/Russian announcement of a program to clone a woolly mammoth, an animal that would extend the capability to carry out a Hannibal style encirclement almost to the arctic circle. But a T-Rex with a laser could take on entire heards of mammoths, if we parachute it to the critical point in time to turn the tide of battle. Conventional air transport is too vulnerable and too slow, as T-Rexes go nuts if they’re cramped into a cargo hold for 10 or 20 hours. But space launch? Genius!!!

        *presses fingers together into a tent*

  5. John Schilling

    I, at least, am suspicious because these guys are proposing not just a space project but an aircraft development project, which puts them in a regulatory regime far less friendly to low-cost innovative R&D, and because the scale is such that even if they can pull it off at one-fifth the industry’s usual costs they’ll burn five times as much cash as Allen has said he expects this to cost. Doing a project for a fraction of the usual costs almost always means compromises somewhere, and this project looks like someone put down their wish list for the perfect space launch system and said “send me the bill”.

    But, I don’t see Rand’s particular suspicion as being terribly credible. There’s no such thing as a stealth space launch, not against anyone who is paying attention, and this doesn’t even come close. Russia already operates a satellite constellation capable of detecting a Falcon-5 class plume pretty much anywherein the world, with China, Japan, and Europe all having discussed fielding a similar capability and easily capable of doing so before Stratolaunch flies.

    If the launch goes undetected, the payload won’t. How many “stealth” satellites have evaded the attentions of amateur astronomers and satellite trackers for more than a few days? And for that matter, Birdzilla carries its payload externally; no shortage of planespotters will notice if it goes up carrying a rocket and returns empty. Add professional observers to the amateurs, and I really don’t see stealth launch as plausible.

    And finally, Paul Allen isn’t Howard Hughes. What does he get out of laundering a few gigabucks of CIA money on a project like this? He’s already got more gigabucks than he has time left to enjoy, and he does not seem to enjoy being a Good Old Boy on the inside of the Military-Industrial Complex.

    No, as far as motive is concerned I am inclined to take it at face value as well. These guys think they can pull it off, and sell it for something close to a profit. I expect they will fail, but I don’t expect they are part of a secret government conspiracy.

    1. Trent Waddington

      Scaled is particularly good at making one-off planes of absurd shapes and dimensions.. and there’s virtually no regulatory regime for that niche. Jeff Foust’s comparisons to passenger jets are embarrassing.

      1. John Schilling

        Scaled is particularly good at making airplanes that are absolutely, positively not allowed to carry passengers or cargo for pay. Their only attempts to date to build a commercial transportation system have been expensive failures, and the open question of White Knight 2.

        The FAA, with uncharacteristic reasonableness for a government bureaucracy, has allowed people like Rutan great latitude to work and play with untested experimental aircraft. They do this because there is an almost involable firewall between experimental and commercial operations. And there is no precedent for the sort of wholesale waiving of regulation that would be required for Stratolaunch to operate this system, for profit, under an experimental airworthiness certificate. No, not Orbital’s L-1011; that has a restricted type certificate based on the aircraft’s previous standard type certificate.

        Rutan, and Allen, may believe that This Time Will Be Different. They are welcome to show me.

    2. Rand Simberg Post author

      How many “stealth” satellites have evaded the attentions of amateur astronomers and satellite trackers for more than a few days?

      The mission might be over, and the payload returned to earth, in a few hours.

      And for that matter, Birdzilla carries its payload externally; no shortage of planespotters will notice if it goes up carrying a rocket and returns empty. Add professional observers to the amateurs, and I really don’t see stealth launch as plausible.

      The fact of the launch won’t be stealthy — but the target will be.

      1. Thomas Matula

        Rand,

        There is a much simpler solution, just include your “military package” as an unannounced secondary payload on a regular launch. When out of satellite coverage it separates and does its thing. The only trick would be justifying the launch inclination used.

        As for the amateur satellite observer corps, the proper non-reflective paint scheme should solve that problem although it may create thermal regulation issues. The only reason they are able to track the X-37B is because a large portion of its surface is white and even then they lose it for days at a time. Imagine if it was all a non-reflective dark gray?

        Of course this could be in violation of the Registration Convention, but that is another story :-)

        1. wodun

          Yup, lost for days at a time.

          Even though amateur satellite trackers kept close tabs, the Air Force was able to make it disappear regularly.

    3. Rand Simberg Post author

      And finally, Paul Allen isn’t Howard Hughes. What does he get out of laundering a few gigabucks of CIA money on a project like this? He’s already got more gigabucks than he has time left to enjoy, and he does not seem to enjoy being a Good Old Boy on the inside of the Military-Industrial Complex.

      Then explain the Huntsville connection. Is he just being naive?

      1. George Turner

        Trent, did the DoD switch to Apple MacIntosh back in the 80’s, or has Microsoft always worked hand in hand with DARPA on Internet security?

        The last time the DoD came up with some tight first-orbit deployment criteria we got the Space Shuttle’s giant payload bay, delta wings, and a never-used pad at Vandenberg. Funding Birdzilla would be moving the decimal point a few places to the left.

      2. Trent Waddington

        Dynetics will be doing the integration of payloads.. also it was stated publicly that Stratolaunch will be going after government markets. Those public statements are all that are necessary to explain their involvement (including Griffin) without speculating about the involvement of a completely different program (X-37B).

  6. Edward Ellegood

    Makes me wonder why Mr. Allen didn’t approach Orbital instead of SpaceX to provide the rocket for Stratolaunch. Antares would provide a similar lift capacity, and Orbital has hard-earned experience with air-launch systems.

      1. Murgatroyd

        Reusability might even be the key to a good cover story for the initial flight tests of the system. SpaceX wants to see whether tail-first recovery of the Falcon booster is feasible. With Birdzilla, you can launch the booster from whatever geographic position allows it to land most easily at the designated recovery spot. But that tail-first landing test also gives you an alibi for testing the entire Birdzilla+booster system for … other purposes.

  7. Michael Kent

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought “Glomar Explorer” during the Stratolaunch press conference. I’m certain there’s something they’re not telling us, though, admittedly, this is only one speculation at what it might be.

    I think the suspicion arises because Stratolaunch combines the worst of the ELV and RLV worlds while trying to hit a small corner of the existing launch market. The Falcon 5 / 9 is going to have to be heavily modified to be horizontally launched. The fuel loads now have to be handled while in the horizontal, not just vertical, orientation. Wings and a strongback are going to have to be added. Forward loads are going to have to be carried to handle a rejected take-off (heavy loads unless it’s fueled at altitude from the Birdzilla).

    None of that is a show-stopper, but it isn’t going to be cheap. The ELV portion of Stratolauncher is going to be close to the launch price of the Falcon 9 (at least within half, IMO).

    That means that even if the Birdzilla has insanely low marginal costs, the total marginal cost of a flight is not going to be low enough to generate a high flight rate. And THAT means that the high development and fixed annual cost of the Birdzilla (annual inspections, maintenance, maintaining a spares inventory on a very large airplane) is going to eat their lunch.

    I just don’t see this venture being profitable as publicly stated. There must be something more to this.

    In my opinion, of course.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this all progresses. I’ll say one thing, though. As an aerospace engineer, I’d love to see the Birdzilla fly!

    Mike

    1. Murgatroyd

      The Falcon 5 / 9 is going to have to be heavily modified to be horizontally launched. The fuel loads now have to be handled while in the horizontal, not just vertical, orientation.

      Piling speculation on speculation … What if the eventual booster turned out to be a solid fuel rocket? It probably would be much easier to mount it horizontally, and much easier to launch it on short notice.

      What if the booster that would launch an X-37B were a big solid fuel rocket, say 5.5 meters in diameter? A big solid fuel rocket that Mike Griffin and other people at Dynetics happen to really, really like? A rocket that was tested even after the program that would have used it was cancelled?

  8. Andrew W

    In some countries legislation can be changed to make way for progress, I guess that’s not considered a realistic possibility to facilitate commercial space flight in the US?

      1. Andrew W

        I don’t think the theory you’ve advanced is likely; too complicated with too high a risk of exposure for too small a gain.

        On some forums people are saying that certification for passenger flights could cost hundreds of millions of dollars under present legislation. I was wondering, if they did put an orbital SpaceShip 3 together if political support could be found to change the legislation to enable it to operate on a buyer beware basis. If a few millionaires risk crashing and burning on joy rides, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so at their own risk?

        Also, how much later to get started, and more expensive, would commercial flight operations have been if they’d had to comply with existing legislation?

        I know the idea of changing legislation to enable new enterprises to get started sounds naive, but it has been known to happen on occasion.

  9. Thomas Matula

    Really folks, if the military needed an aircraft like this they could fund it out of pocket change in the black budget and test it out at Groom Lake with no one ever knowing, just as they did with stealth. They wouldn’t need Paul Allen to cover for them. The reason they needed Howard Hughes was because a unique ship like the Glomar Explorer is a lot harder to hide.

    And if all you are looking for is a system to air launch an ICBM,or a massive bunker buster you don’t need something this size. The USAF demonstrated way back in the 1970’s a C-5 is more then capable of doing so, so they wouldn’t need to build a new plane, just divert one or more C-5’s from retirement and quietly modify them. And a missile launching C-5 is a lot easier to hide in plain sight :-)

    So the answer as to why Stratolaunch is simple. When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail to you. Burt Rutan is an aircraft designer so for him air launch is the only method that makes sense and Paul Allen is just going along with the engineer that won him the Ansari X-Prize. So yes, you could probably consider this SpaceshipThree if you want.

    As to it being a financial, that will be determined by many things, but then the same is true for SpaceShipTwo which the jury is still out on since its still in flight test and is a couple years from starting revenue service.

    As for the cost of certification, is it really going to be that much different then it will be for White Knight2/SpaceshipTwo? And if its affordable for White Knight2/Spaceship2 why wouldn’t it be for Stratolauncher?

    Now what will be interesting is if Burt Rutan tries to extend air launch into the 25 ton to LEO range (SpaceshipFour?). Now THAT will be some aircraft :-)

    1. Coastal Ron

      Thomas, the Air Force doesn’t have much “pocket change” these days, so partnering with someone that has a credible chance of providing an improved service (i.e. air launching the X-37) isn’t a bad strategy.

      Also, Burt Rutan brings a lower cost approach to whatever he does (or endorses), so farming out something like this to Boeing or LM could cost 3-4X more – too much to overcome the use of vertical launching the X-37 for now.

    2. George Turner

      Really folks, if the military needed an aircraft like this they could fund it out of pocket change in the black budget and test it out at Groom Lake with no one ever knowing, just as they did with stealth.

      Not quite. For this aircraft to perform the function of launching a satellite into a wide variety of orbits, it’s going to have to fly hundreds of miles outside of restricted airspace and then light off a huge rocket. The aircraft must necessarily be huge, not small like an F-117, and it will definitely show up on radar. Its going to be a very obvious system during development, testing, and operation.

      The Air Force could pursue such a system themselves, just as they could’ve built their own space shuttle program, but getting on board with this system makes the same sense as getting on board with NASA’s Space Shuttle.

      Even if they intend to be a heavy, if not primary, user of the system, the system itself isn’t a dedicated military program that Congress would cut in a heartbeat.

      The system is ostensibly civilian and commercial, as was the Shuttle.

      Maintaining the system doesn’t come directly out of their budget, so even if their operational budget for it gets zeroed out every now and then, the system won’t necessarily get scrapped. It’ll still be operational the following year when they get their budget straightened out.

      Responsibility for glitches, delays, and cost overruns will fall on others, and won’t be career enders for them.

      It would give the Air Force and CIA capabilities they desperately wanted with the Shuttle, first orbit deployment of a satellite or vehicle in odd launch planes, frequently and at low cost.

      SpaceX worked hard pursuing Air Force launch contracts recently, but ULA won out. Obviously some of the parties have been discussing needs and capabilities.

      Even if this system had nothing to do with the Air Force or NRO, they would be the first customers standing in line to use it.

      1. Thomas Matula

        George,

        [[[it will definitely show up on radar]]]

        Yes, it will, just as other classified aircraft do when they leave controlled airspace but remember.

        1. Given its speed and performance it will probably wouldn’t look that much different then other military airlifters. Its not like it will be doing loops or climbing above 50,000 ft while outside military airspace.

        2. Anything interesting, like launching a payload, would likely be done offshore, far out of radar range as is done now. As a side note, no one has yet claimed responsibility for the mysterious sonic booms, similar to a returning Shuttle, that occurred regularly off of San Diego a few years back. Makes you wonder what was in the air offshore…

        3. The radar operators work for the FAA and are bound by government secrecy rules so even if they see something interesting they are not allowed to talk about it.

        4. Night flights eliminate the risk of visual observations.

        Yes I have confidence that the USAF/DOD would be able to keep it secret. As for the money issue, again we are talking the black budget here.

        1. Ed Minchau

          As a side note, no one has yet claimed responsibility for the mysterious sonic booms, similar to a returning Shuttle, that occurred regularly off of San Diego a few years back. Makes you wonder what was in the air offshore…

          Sonic booms offshore next to the Top Gun flight school at Miramar? That is indeed a puzzle.

          1. Thomas Matula

            Ed,

            Sorry but the Navy, Marines were very clear that their aircraft were not responsible.

            http://legacy.signonsandiego.com/news/northcounty/20060423-9999-1n23bigboom.html

            [[[Was it a sonic boom? If so, it didn't come from any aircraft at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Maj. Jason Johnston said. And it didn't come from any Navy planes in San Diego, said Cmdr. Jack Hanzlik, a Coronado-based spokesman for the Naval Air Forces. ]]]

            VAFB stated they hadn’t launched any rockets that day.

            [[[Could some sort of rocket be the cause? A spokeswoman at Vandenberg Air Force Base, 60 miles north of Santa Barbara, said the base didn't launch any rockets that day. Neither did NASA, a spokesman for that agency said. ]]]

            And scientists have ruled out a meteor.

            [[[But an airburst powerful enough to cause tremors all over San Diego County would have been noticed by scientists, Beshore said. And the American Meteor Society reported no fireball sightings over California on April 4.]]]

            BTW Top Gun was merged Naval Weapon and Strike Center and moved to Nevada in 1996. You really should keep up with such things if you wish to use them as excuses.

          2. Edward Wright

            Was it a sonic boom? If so, it didn’t come from any aircraft at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Maj. Jason Johnston said.

            LOL. You would make a great traffic cop, Tom!

            “Honest, Officer Matula. I wasn’t speeding!”

            “Okay, sorry, then. It must have been a UFO. Third time that’s happened to me tonight.”

    3. Edward Wright

      Really folks, if the military needed an aircraft like this they could fund it out of pocket change in the black budget and test it out at Groom Lake

      At one time, the fastest planes in the US were civilian racing planes, because the military officially believed it had no need for faster fighter planes. Do you think the military should have stuck with the P-26?

      I suppose you would have argued that Billy Mitchell was a fool to think an airplane could ever sink a battleship, because if there was a military needed an aircraft like that, it would have already built it!

  10. Coastal Ron

    The lack of a strong business case does make one wonder if there is more to Stratolaunch than has been announced.

    I was one of the many that thought a natural customer would be the Air Force X-37, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there has been internal discussions or agreements between the two on future use. Whether the Air Force is providing direct funding is a little harder to discern, and I would lean towards it not happening – for now. Maybe a milestone based contract? The combination of the two is just too good of a fit not to wonder.

    Regarding the board members, Rand has done a good job finding interesting connections and “coincidences”. Not proof per se, but we’re not going to have any proof until hardware gets built and things start getting launched.

    Keep in mind that the purpose of Boards of Directors is not only to provide oversight, but each of the board members should be bringing something unique and useful to the company.

    Burt Rutan brings technical overview to the carrier aircraft portion of the project, and likely the project overall. He is Paul Allens go-to guy for making sure the project is going the right direction.

    Gwynne Shotwell (SpaceX President) represents the involvement of SpaceX. I have to think that they are doing this for more than the basic supplier role that’s been announced. I would imagine that Elon Musk sees this effort as a potential expansion of their transportation services overall. Too little to go on so far, but maybe they are working some sort of cost-plus basis?

    Michael Griffin is the biggest head scratcher in this, for all the reasons Rand and others have pointed out. However he does provide the stamp of approval for “OldSpace” proponents, so I think his job is to help bring in orders by his endorsement of the approach. Getting orders early on is very important, no matter who it is (i.e. private, government, “black”, etc.).

    I don’t have an opinion on the others, but it will be interesting to see how they attach these rockets to the carrier aircraft, and how much infrastructure it takes. That should tell us how flexible it should be.

    My $0.02

  11. Kirk Dameron

    I’ll put aside the tinfoil-hat/no-tinfoil-hat debate for a moment.

    I took the comment by Allen that it would be “an order of magnitude more expensive” than the $27M of SpaceShipOne to be much broader than merely 10x the cost of the earlier project.

    I believe it was Robert Heinlein who illustrated that, when using a relative size phrase like “order of magnitude”, it is necessary to loosen the notion of the precision of the multiplier. Thus, I saw “order of magnitude” more expensive as meaning something more like $100M to $1B. I don’t think any of us are justified in seeing the (computed alternative) $300M figure as any sort of limit, nor even a planning budget. Paul Allen simply did not intend to give us any precision in his answer.

    1. Larry J

      As I posted over at New Space Journal:

      I wouldn’t put too much weight into the “order of magnitude” remark. That’s a pretty imprecise statement and likely isn’t a hard limit. For Paul Allen, $500 million is almost petty cash. Not having to finance the project will save a lot of money in the long run.

      We have to be careful about depending too heavily on traditional cost models. Most are based on business as usual cost-plus development efforts and have not proven very accurate. Cost and schedule overruns abound in the cost-plus world because there is no incentive at controlling costs. Projects built on a non-cost-plus basis can come in significantly cheapter. For example, according to NASA, SpaceX spent approximately $300 million to develop the Falcon 9. Using NASA’s traditional development methods, it would’ve cost at least 10 times as much. NASA itself as admitted as much and their history shows their cost estimates are almost always too low.

      Aviation Week is reporting that the company is looking to buy two used 747s to salvage for usable parts. There just happens to be a lot of old airliners including 747s parked at Mojave airport. They plan on salvaging the engines, landing gear, cockpit and other usable components. Used engines are perfectly acceptable for a plane that isn’t going to fly very much and will save many million dollars over new engines. Landing gear development is challenging and expensive so reusing 747 components will save a lot of money and time. Scaled Composites has decades of experience at building special purpose aircraft at far less cost than traditional companies. That’s why the company exists. Northrup-Grumman bought Scaled to obtain a highly capable “Skunk Works” of their own and have used the company to good effect.

  12. wodun

    Very interesting discussion.

    Whether or not this program’s prime function is to launch secret government or purely civilian assets, the discussion shows that there is a potential government market. To me this strengthens the business case. Sadly, right now there isn’t much of a business case for anything in space, other than satellites, that doesn’t use a government agency as an anchor.

    Appealing to the military, NASA, and a civilian market is shrewd. I understand that some people are opposed to taking any money from the government but it is also stupid to turn away customers.

  13. NoName

    There is an old saying about conspiracy theories.

    “Don’t attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence.”

    Obviously I am not a huge believer in air launch.

  14. stan

    This has to be the most interesting thread in quite some time. Thank you all for very interesting and well thought out remarks and speculation, even if wrong.

    I would add that the proposed readiness timeframe for the first flight of Birdzilla coincides with estimates for when Iranian nukes are likely to materialize. Thus the speculation that Birdzilla is a covert weapon development plan isn’t crazy in the absence of a solid business case for air launched F5’s. Furthermore, if we get to a point with Iran where the war drums are beating louder, and conflict is innevitable, FAA regs/type permitting can be tossed aside in a National emergency. The aircraft could also be militarized at the last minute and would not have to comply with any FAA type rating regs. The military does not answer to the FAA.

    I also have wondered when some of these new space companies will innevitably crossover into military applications for their technology. Iran poses a relatively immediate threat that our traditional military/industrial compelx cannot react quick enough to to neutralize. If Boeing or Lockheed had to build a Birdzilla type launcher, you wouldn’t even get the paperwork or a defined scope until 2014.

    Of all the speculation that seems to fit best is the +85 tons of Tungsten penetrators. Iran may well have burried all their weapons programs too deep for conventional munitions. I give you all this quote from AV Weeks most recent article on Birdzilla:

    “We’ll be integrating the mission planning stuff associated with the drop and the launch, and building the hardware that will allow the drop,” says David A. King, a Stratolaunch board member and executive vice president of Dynetics.

    For that work, Dynetics will apply its experience as prime contractor on the U.S. Air Force’s GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (Moab) bomb, and with Boeing on the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (Mop) bunker buster, which weigh 20,000 and 30,000 lb., respectively.

    “We’ve got a fair amount of experience dropping big, heavy stuff, too, both aerodynamically and from a mechanical perspective,” King says.

    The inclusion of Dynetics is no accident under any circumstance. Terminal guidance of a hypersonic penetrator is going to be tricky.

    Finally, I am left thinking of the politics of using such a weapon. If speculation holds true, Iran is the target. Using something of this magnitude against the Chinese in the Taiwan straights would invite a nuclear response against carrier battlegroups. It’s that big of an escalating threat over conventional munitions. Losing Taiwan, while not desirable, is not worth a nuclear exchange for the USA. Iran..go for it.

    OR…the conspiracy could be so deep as to be one that was designed to goad Gaetano Marano out of his Sept. 20th retirement. The aerospace world has screached to a halt without all his novel ideas being posted at ghostnasa for poaching by evil US Aerospace companies.

  15. stan

    One more thought. It will be interesting to see how much design info is released during construction. If a Birdzilla is to carry +85 tons of Kick Ass on an air launched EELV class rocket, there is going to be a serious problem with the center of lift vs. the CG of the Photoshopped representations of the aircraft we saw in the animations and press releases.

    1. Rod

      If I make my “Rod from God” (no pun intended) ten time longer than in diameter, the 150,000 pounds of tungsten is 2.5 feet in diameter by 25 feet long. The attack rocket won’t have a second stage or a payload. It would be best to put the tup within the booster’s oxygen tank. It wouldn’t displace that much lox and that would solve the CG difficulty.

  16. stan

    I was just over at Dynetics looking at job openings at this spook oufit. Everything but the Summer Intern and Adminstrative Assistant requies some type of Secret or Top Secret clearance. So how does Astrolaunch fit into their business??? just sayin….

    To believe that this whole lamely suspicious Astrolaunch consortia is a guvmint block ops smokescreen posing as a commercial venture, you would have to believe that the guvmint paymasters and current adminstration are so lame and idiotic as to think this BS wouldn’t escape public notice…oh wait…nevermind

  17. stan

    How deep does the rabit hole go Neo?

    Dynetics is HQ’ed in Huntsville Alabama, home to our favorite Sr. Senator from that wonderful state, Senator Richard Shelby. Dynetics headqurters is 11 miles from Senator Shelby’s listed office address for Huntsville. Just think if Senator Shelby is pulling strings with Mike Griffin on this whole Astrolaunch thingy. What’s next? Cats and Dogs living together, total chaos? end of the world? I luv a good conspiracy theory. This one has legs.

    1. Thomas Matula

      Well Dynetics is also the lead for the Rocket City Pioneers and Michael Griffin in on their team. Perhaps their Lunar X-Prize team is really a plot to create a secret mass driver on the Moon. Send pretty pictures from the fake rover to Google while the real rover prepares the way for future secret missions using the Stratolauncher to build the mass driver. Once the mass driver is built it could be used to throw rocks at Iran and pretend it is was a meteor strom that took out their nuclear capabilities. A secret lunar base would also keep the Chinese from taking over the Moon when a meteor happens to hit their lander. What a tragic accident to lose their first lander that way :-)

      Gee, these conspiracy theories are fun :-)

      1. Stan

        Matula has sold out. He’s obviously an inside plant posting disinformation. His last post was an obvious attempt to delegitimize the crazy truth with an over the top batshit crazy false theory for the Stratolauncher. This ruse, however clever, is just another shameful example of how these pawns of the illuminati will stop at nothing to further Ron L Hubbards cronies at Dynetics from destroying the world.

        1. Thomas Matula

          Stan,

          Sounds like you are almost ready to be a guest on the Coast to Coast radio show. Maybe you could replace Richard Hoagland as their science advisor :-)

          1. Stan

            Almost???

            Back up the dumptruck full of money & show me where to sign the contract!
            :-)

            What could be a better livelihood that talking to lonely truckers barreling down our nations Interstate highway system at 2am in the morning, telling them wacked out scary pseudoscience stuff they are intellectually ill equiped to refute, and selling them gold and silver bars to bury in their backyards?

            Hoagland isn’t even creative anymore. He made the mistake of all false prophets ( or is that profits?) by staking his credibility on things that can be disproven, and then not knowing when to hang it up and run off with the money. Rev. Stang and the Subgenius cult are the best example of nutjobs who had a great cult, were extremely funny, placed their bets(prophecies) and let the whole thing die off while it was still funny. Hoagland should have learned from them and hung it up after his Mars face stuff was finally shown as BS.

            Where’s that contract again??

          2. Thomas Matula

            Stan,

            [[[Where’s that contract again??]]]

            Sorry that is not the business model.

            Shows like Coast to Coast don’t pay the folks that talk on them. The guests make their money by promoting their books and newsletters to the show’s audiences. Plus you will need to get along with Dr. Zubrin as he often does joint appearances with Richard Hoagland to bash NASA.

  18. pat

    This would also be a perfect carrier for a Prompt-Global-Strike type weapon. Hell, you could sling a couple of ICBM’s below it if you wanted to.

  19. Godzilla

    This is nuts and “Dynetics” sounds like a book from a bunch of cooks. Probably will be sued by them too for trademark infringment.

    The icing in the cake is putting Griffin in the team. Guaranteed F-A-I-L.

    If it’s prompt global strike just put a conventional warhead on a Minuteman missile, tell the Russians which silos have the conventional warheads and allow inspections with a geiger counter or whatever, then just use them.

    There’s probably a load of bases being closed all over the map due to weapons limitation treaties anyway.

  20. Stan

    Tell the Russians? Aren’t they the primary enablers of Iran?

    A Minuteman missile could carry how many “rods”? How many “rods” would be needed to destroy the highly dispersed, deeply burried, and uncertain locations where our doubtlessly stellar intel says they are at? No, standard ICBM’s make no sense if you think you will premier the weapon against Iran. There will be no long military campaign, no occupation by ground troops, no political will internationally to support a drawn out war, no support internally to again be at war against yet another Islamic state. No guarantee that Iran may actually be able to pull off significant act of sabotage within our own borders and cripple our own economy here. It’s a virtual guarantee that we will have no forward basing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else closeby that would be within range of USN or USAF air assets necessary for air superiority needed for a prolonged conventional bombing. Israel would work if you could base tanker aircraft there. However if you put tankers in Israel, you may not like the reaction of the neighbors. Iran poses incredible problems for US capabilities, and US operative constraints due to politics and geography. Building this speculative type weapon solves an amazing number of problems if it can be made to work.

    Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

  21. Charles Grimm

    I was suspicious of the concept when it was announced, considering the quoted price of a Falcon 9 vs. the amortized development costs of a different Falcon and a Tom Swift Flying lab sized aircraft. My thoughts were more along the aerial firefighting with a pod, or giant prefab bridge sections in Afghanistan. Can this bunch of bright readers think of any more conventional niches where the aircraft could be put to money making uses?

    1. Thomas Matula

      Charles,

      Transporting empty Falcon 9’s to launch sites would be one. Actually transporting any oversize cargo. And since the cargo would be in a pod beneath it unloading would be quick – detaching the pod and attaching a new one. Then the pod could be unloaded in at leisure after the plane departs. However the big problem with its use as a civilian transport is its short range.

      Aerial refueling might solve that problem for military applications but would also make it a expensive alternative to existing airlifters. Since the pod is external you could also airdrop some very large vehicles and equipment from it, but you would need some really large size parachutes, or clusters of parachutes so I don’t see any real advantages over a C-17 for airdrop.

      As for the cluster firing of Harpoons that someone suggested, Boeing had a design for a cruise missile launching version of the B747 that would work much better, but why use a cargo craft when you could simple modify B-1’s and B-2’s to carry the Harpoon quicker and cheaper?

      No. The only practical use for it will be launching Falcon 5’s and the only way to make it pay will be to launch a lot of tourists on day flights. Rapid launch of military payloads would also be an option but the military seems to be going in another direction with their funding the development of reusable boosters by Boeing and Lockheed.

  22. Jon A.

    One slightly less sinister use for Stratolaunch: fast replacement of satellite assets destroyed by antisatellite weapons.

    Being able to quickly loft a replacement GPS satellite over some future battleground could be a considerable asset.

    Though, for that purpose, a solid rocket booster that could be stored ready to go then put into service quickly would be better than a liquid-fueled booster.

    Aside from that, perhaps someone is dusting off the 1990’s-era plans for low-flying satphone constellations.

    1. Stan

      Hmmm…the meatgrinder of orbital debris might negate the emergence of that market. The last one ( satphone constallation, or something like it ) is what a smart conspiracy operation would have put in place had they been thinking through the backstory. However it’s tough to come up with anything near term that justifies Stratolaunch other than “build it & they will come”, and I trust that Paul Allen/Burt Rutan/Mike Griffin know something we don’t. …..OK, scratch Mike Griffin from that list. oops.

  23. Stan

    I hate to do this…but here is more grissle for the fever swamp of conspiracy:

    Remember back a few months ago when ULA proposed a 40-50 unit block buy of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 CCB’s? It was in late October, so let me refresh your memory here:
    http://www.aero-news.net/index.cfm?do=main.textpost&id=1fe3cada-4cbd-463a-91ef-2c4686879666

    or here…
    http://www.spacenews.com/launch/111209-disputes-assertion-af-lacks-block-data.html

    And the poor ULA officials were completely stumped when asked by GAO and politicians favorable to SpaceX and market competition asked them to justify the large buy. They had no answer for the possible payloads for the 40-50 CCB’s in the buy request.

    yeah….whatever.

    Fast forward two months and we get Stratolaunch. A unique assembly of Scaled composites/Paul Allen’s money/SpaceX/& the spooky Dynetics. And this new entity want to build some a big plane and put some SpaceX rockets with no plausible commercial payloads able to be identified. What the hell is going on?

    It seems to me that someone in the government very much wants to build some extra rockets for unnamed payloads, and it’s near certainty is they are defense related. And what possible defense concerns are in the near horizon you ask?
    http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/12/20/obama-moves-toward-war-with-iran/

    Money is tight for black programs right now, ya just can’t funnel a couple of billion to ULA and think nobody’s going to notice. And somehow that pesky SpaceX is going to have to be bought off or pulled into the Gvt procurement game. Obama’s busy with other costly priorities like stuffing cash into ACORN & Diebold for the upcoming election, not to mention his demanding Union pals. ( OK I’m embelishing at least two of three of those last sentences )

    Now we flash forward to today and we have Stratolaunch. Say whatever you want about it, but is was obvious this project and the new conference was prety hastily put together. The conference was like Allen just woke up one day, called Burt, talked some kid dreams and airplane stuff together, said “Hey..were gonna need a bigger rocket”, so they call up Elon and say whaddya think, can ya make us a stubby F9? We don’t know what is going to launch on it yet, but the worlds biggest airplane and your rocket, what could go wrong?” So naturally they called up Mike Griffin for his oversight & political contacts ( Shelby) and then Griffin said, “What took you so long to call me? That sounds like it might be a good idea, I don’t really know, but I know these guys, Dynetics, down in Huntsville. There kinda spooky, there world experts at bypassing that whole military procurement paperwork nightmare when it comes to making and fielding really big bomb thingys that get dropped from airplanes. There just like you guys, they are “gitter done” type of folks with lots of security clearances. They’ll fit right in with you altruistic billionaires and creative aerospace geniuses.” Let’s go have some beers! Yay Stratolaunch!

    Or alternately, this is a union of necessity, that all the players were informed of the geopolitical stakes for the United States. Yet some cloak of plausibility needs to be kept. Allen is the money guy & probable lefty supporter of this Adminstration, Rutan has true expertise with his founding and running Scaled for all these years. He’s a damn fine American, so he gets on board, Elon’s motivations are tougher to figure out. He wants to build rockets and go to Mars, he’s a South African, so maybe he’s greatful to his new country, maybe he just want’s SpaceX to survive. Bottom line for Elon, if US DoD officials convince him that war with Iran is coming within 3-5 years, nobody on this planet is going to Mars anytime soon given the economic impacts. Dream over pal, get on board or lose everything. Mike Griffin, even if you hate him, you know he is loyal to the USA, and probably jumped at this chance to bring this together. Dynetics is the easy one, they look exactly the type of organization you want on your side when you want to rain down an unholy terror from the skies onto your enemies. Eff with them at your peril. Enable their capabilites with Scaled & SpaceX, and you have the tools to change governments at a distance anywhere on this planet.

    1. Thomas Matula

      Another problem with the Stratolauncher in this scenario is that a single point failure, loss of the launcher aircraft, would kill your replacement program. Or you bombing program. Now if the folks at Stratolauncher were building a dozen launch aircraft this might make sense.

      BTW if I recall Virgin Galactic is planing to build at least 10 White Knight Twos.

      1. Stan

        name this movie:

        “The first rule of government contracting is, why buy just one when you can have two at twice the price?”

        Only this second/third/fourth one will be secretively operated by an unnamed & wholly owned subsidiary of entity we dare not speak its name.

        As far as my new career in pimping my book on coast to coast, that sounds hard. I think I’ll just wait for Obama to fill my gas tank and help me out with my mortgage.

    2. Chris Y Taylor

      “Elon’s motivations are tougher to figure out.”

      Really? Given his company’s considerable participation in the USAF’s FALCON program to develop… a space launch vehicle to support a responsive global precision strike capability, how can you really wonder if he’d be interested in cooperating with the Air Force to develop…. a space launch vehicle to support a responsive global precision strike capability. For goodness sake he even NAMED the darned thing ‘Falcon’. Real subtle marketing, SpaceX.

    1. Thomas Matula

      Like I said, you have to write your book and start hawking it on Coast to Coast, then set up a website for subscriber only updates, that is how you make the money :-)

  24. Anthony

    Paul Allen has an estimated wealth of $13 billion as of 2011. $300 million represents 2.3% of his wealth. All of you, try to estimate how you are worth, including house(s), car(s), investment(s), etc..
    Figure out of much 2.3% of your own worth is. Now let’s assume this amount is in the same ball park as the money you think you would need to fulfill your wildest dream.
    What would you do?

  25. thomas Matula

    You know, its strikes me, if you move the engines of the Stratolauncher to above the wing (like the Boeing YC-14, and lifted the wings a bit higher on a pylon so the payload is higher, you could turn the Stratolauncher into a sea plane, which would solve the problems of finding suitable runways.

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