Stratolaunch’s giant aircraft on its first, and perhaps only, flight in April. (credit: Stratolaunch)
Making predictions sometimes is not very enjoyable even—or perhaps especially—when they come true.
According to a Reuters article published Friday, Stratolaunch is about to cease operations and close up shop, selling off its assets. Whether this includes selling the record-setting Roc aircraft remains to be seen. It is hard to imagine any buyer for that aircraft, and it may prove too large for any museum. This is a sad end to an interesting project, but many people, myself included, never expected Stratolaunch to ever be successful. Stratolaunch seemed like the pet idea of a billionaire with so much money that he did not need to worry about market viability. When that billionaire, Paul Allen, died late last year, those of us skeptical about the company assumed that Allen’s trustees would finish and fly the aircraft, and then close up shop, and now it’s happening.
This has been a long time coming, and over the past seven years Stratolaunch has often seemed to be taking two steps forward and one, or even two steps back. In late 2012, Stratolaunch Systems parted ways with SpaceX, one of the original partners on the air-launch system (see “Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?”, The Space Review, December 19, 2011). SpaceX was supposed to build the rocket that would be dropped from the giant Stratolauncher airplane and carry payloads into Earth orbit. Stratolaunch then sought out SpaceX rival Orbital Sciences to investigate building a rocket for the project. A Stratolaunch executive announced that their separation from SpaceX had to do with the technical modifications required to adapt a rocket to the aircraft. While it is never a great idea to turn down somebody who wants to pay you money to do something, SpaceX was not short of customers. In addition, if they had been successful at building the air-launched rocket, this would have placed SpaceX in the awkward position of competing against itself. So the divorce made perfect sense, and Orbital, with its experience with the Pegasus rocket, knew more about air launch than anybody else.
But even that was not enough. Orbital could not come up with a viable rocket, and after years of study, what Stratolaunch planners eventually came up with was a plan to use their giant aircraft to launch up to three small Pegasus rockets. Considering that the Pegasus launched about once every couple of years at most, finding three Pegasus customers for a single launch opportunity seemed ridiculous. In the meantime, Orbital Sciences became Orbital ATK in 2014, then was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018. There were rumors of another rocket for Stratolaunch, and possibly even a human spacecraft, but those rumors made little sense.
When Allen’s plans to build the Stratolauncher were first made public in December 2011, the announcement was met with some degree of puzzlement by various news outlets and analysts. The private rocket, many realized, would face substantial technical challenges and a potentially huge price tag. It would also be pursuing a part of the launch market that was at best a niche. This led various people to try and develop a rationale for why Allen was really building this rocket, and soon some people started coming up with conspiracy theories.
The explanation that started to circulate in space circles was that the official story was a cover for a classified mission launching covert satellites into secret orbits. It’s akin to the Glomar Explorer, the very public “mining ship” that was actually funded by the CIA in the early 1970s to secretly recover a Soviet submarine on the bottom of the ocean floor. The problem with this theory for Stratolaunch was that it never made any sense. If the biggest airplane in the world took off with a rocket underneath and returned without that rocket, people would notice. It would not be “covert” at all. Instead, it would lead to much speculation about where the rocket had gone and what it had carried. The national security community could attract far less attention simply by launching on a conventional rocket, like they already do. Conspiracy-minded space enthusiasts claimed that the benefit of Stratolaunch was that nobody would know the orbit that the rocket had launched to, but this seemed like a thin argument. How important was such a capability when militarily-useful orbits are obvious? And besides, there has been a long history of this idea being explored and rejected.
During the early 1960s the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office evaluated the possibilities of covert satellite launches. The earliest known scheme involved disguising a reconnaissance satellite as—no kidding—a test of an orbiting nuclear weapons platform launched atop an Atlas-Agena rocket. Details about this plan are scarce, but it seems rather odd to try and hide something secret behind the cloak of something that would have been dangerously provocative to the Soviet Union, and therefore would have attracted a lot of attention.
Declassified records indicate that by the mid-1960s the CIA evaluated several other options, including putting a satellite atop a Polaris missile launched via submarine, dropping a rocket out of the back of a C-130 cargo plane, and even launching a rocket from an A-12 OXCART spy plane. One program, designated “Town Hall,” would have used a B-58 Hustler medium bomber to launch a rocket. Instead of disguising the satellite, they sought to launch it out of sight. None of these options were pursued. The biggest problem was that none of the possible launch platforms could place a very large payload into orbit. Therefore, any “covert satellite” would be less capable than the conventional reconnaissance satellites then being launched every few weeks on Thor and Atlas, and later Titan, rockets. Instead of developing covert launch, the CIA and Air Force sought ways of rapidly launching existing satellites by reducing ground processing time. (See “Movements of fire and shadow: The X-23 PRIME reentry vehicle and American satellite reconnaissance,” The Space Review, March 5, 2018) They also increased the responsiveness of satellites on orbit. But these satellites were still visible from the ground using conventional radar and optical systems.
By the 1970s the spooks looked at another option: if they could not pass the satellite off as something else, and if they could not hide the launch, maybe they could make at least some satellites invisible to observation. The first stealth satellite research started in the 1970s with the launch of the Lincoln Experimental Satellite LES-8, equipped with a mirror that could make the satellite disappear to ground observers, and satellite stealth research and development increased substantially during the Reagan era. Stealth satellites are launched conventionally, but are not seen again by the amateur spy satellite trackers who search for them. They may be tracked by the Russians. Although little is known about them, we do know that stealth satellites are rare, and apparently insanely expensive. They may also have other operational limitations that explain why most intelligence satellites are more conventional, and indeed, visible from the ground. There is no legitimate reason to build a giant, non-covert launch system, just to launch at most one or two stealthy satellites a decade.
In addition to the lack of mission capability, there are the limitations of air launch itself. Air launch is simply not an attractive way to launch satellites. If it was, there would be more companies and countries developing this capability. Out of dozens of rockets developed over 60 years of spaceflight, you can count the number of operational air-launched versions on a single hand with four fingers missing, although Virgin Orbit is making a serious effort to begin air-launching satellites from a 747. But there have always been lots of proposals. In addition to the ones already mentioned, in the past couple of decades there was a proposal to launch a rocket from underneath a B-1 bomber, and a more recent DARPA project to launch a small rocket from underneath an F-15 fighter. Most proposals never got a go-ahead, and most that got a go-ahead were quickly canceled. This is true for foreign proposals as much as American ones. Air launch just doesn’t have obvious advantages.
Some of the problems are obvious, while others are more subtle. For example, the gain in altitude from being launched from an aircraft is undercut by the limit to the size of the rocket, as well as other operational considerations like the boil off of cryogenics. Aircraft might be mobile, but satellites require ground support facilities that may not be. One former Air Force official has noted that an earlier (and now-canceled) air launching project had an inherent flaw: after being dropped from its carrier aircraft and falling toward the Earth, the rocket engines had to cancel the backwards velocity before they could start providing forward velocity. The performance hit was so great that it was worse than firing the rocket from the ground.
So, Paul Allen was building a big aircraft and a big rocket that seemed incredibly cool, but also not very logical unless you’re a Bond villain. But there are different types of logic when you’re insanely rich. The project was entirely logical if you accepted that it was never about profits but ego. If you’re massively rich, why shouldn’t you have very expensive toys to show off? Other rich men have the world’s biggest private jets, or the world’s most expensive antique cars. What Paul Allen wanted was the world’s biggest airplane that also happened to launch rockets. He got the former, a carbon-composite carrier plane, with a 117-meter wingspan and powered by six engines taken from 747s. But he never got to see it fly. Allen died last October, and the plane flew for the first time in April. Outside observers looking for market logic or technical logic really only needed to consider the human (well, male) ego. Ego logic explained Stratolaunch.
Indeed, we should be used to this by now. After all, there’s a joke that the best way to make a small fortune in the space business is to start with a large fortune, and we already have several examples of rich tycoons spending a small (or even moderate) amount of their net worth on space business ventures, most of which have not panned out even after many years of trying (Blue Origin was founded in 2000 and Bigelow Aerospace in 1998, neither one yet makes money.) They claim that they are also pursuing markets, but it’s worth asking if those markets are real or merely justifications that they use with their wives to explain why they don’t simply have a model train set in the basement, like normal middle-aged men. Sometimes business acumen gives way to daydreams, and if you have a lot of money, losing tens, or even billions of it on aerospace ventures that don’t return a profit is not that big a deal.
Paul Allen had other pursuits, and one of the great things he’s done—that also had no profit motive—was locate numerous long-lost US Navy ships from World War II such as the famed USS Hornet, which launched the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Allen did it because of his interest in history. And now it looks like Stratolaunch is also history. It’s too bad, because it would be much cooler to see that crazy project fly.
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