The White Elephant in the hangar


Earlier this summer, multiple news outlets reported that Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch was for sale for $400 million. At the time, we wondered : if these stories are true, why would anyone buy it—at least for its original purpose of launching rockets to orbit?

Back in 2011, when Stratolaunch was first unveiled, the company’s thesis for building “the Roc” was fairly straightforward:

  • If there’s a runway long enough (3,700 m), the Roc could launch a rocket from anywhere on the globe.
  • It can fly around bad weather and still launch (although being a passenger in it while flying through bad weather would suck).
  • It can turn around quickly for rapid launch.
  • With the ability to launch an estimated 6 tons to LEO, the Roc can out-lift every small/medium launch vehicle announced over the past decade.

After eight years of development, the Roc finally flew for the first time in April 2019, but Stratolaunch has been unable to resolve another key technical/business challenge…finding a rocket to launch.  Since 2012, Stratolaunch has cycled through rocket designs from SpaceX, Northrop (twice), and its own homebrewed concepts, but is currently sans an actual rocket it can launch. Which means none of the reasons listed above really matter.

Against this backdrop, news broke last week that Stratolaunch has passed into the hands of new (undisclosed) owners. “Stratolaunch LLC has transitioned ownership and is continuing regular operations,” is the official line from the company. The company will provide customers a “rocket-powered testbed” and an airframe with which to launch it.

Which brings us back to Stratolaunch’s core problem—where is this rocket-powered testbed? Just last week, Northrop Grumman reclaimed the two Pegasus launch vehicles it had been building for Stratolaunch, noting that NASA or other customers might be interested in using them (good luck with that). We’ve seen no evidence of an actual rocket of any kind slung under the Roc. And we haven’t heard of a rocket manufacturer committing development dollars toward an air-launch testbed.

To be sure, there are other issues with Stratolaunch’s launch platform. It’s one of a kind. It’s really expensive. It needs long runways. It needs a world hungry for small satellites but devoid of reusable rockets. It’s been on the keen edge of not having a business case in the space launch industry for nearly a decade.

But those challenges don’t matter without a rocket–and neither does this latest development.