Tag Archives: Vulcan Aerospace

Stratolaunch to use Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket

The competition heats up? Vulcan Aerospace and Orbital ATK announced today that they are renewing their partnership, using Pegasus in conjunction with Stratolaunch to put satellites into orbit.

Under a multiyear “production-based partnership,” the companies said, Orbital ATK will provide “multiple” Pegasus XL air-launch rockets to be used with the Stratolaunch aircraft, which, when completed, will have the largest wingspan of any plane ever built.

With the Pegasus XL rockets, the Stratolaunch aircraft will be able to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds, according to the firms’ joint statement released Thursday. Pegasus rockets already have done this kind of work: Orbital ATK has used them to launch satellites from the belly of its Stargazer aircraft.

This deal suggests to me that Vulcan Aerospace has a problem. It couldn’t find anyone to build a large rocket for Stratolaunch and this deal was therefore conjured up to paper over this problem. First , it appears that the reason Orbital ATK originally backed out was that they didn’t want to build the new rocket. Maybe they had engineering concerns. Maybe they were worried about cost or management. Regardless, they didn’t want to build it.

Second, using Stratolaunch with Pegasus seems pointless if the satellite weigh is still limited to only 1,000 pounds. That’s the payload capacity of Pegasus using Orbital ATK’s L-1011 Stargazer airplane. Why bother switching to Stratolaunch if the giant plane doesn’t give you any benefits?

Thus, it appears to me that what has happened is that Vulcan needed some rocket to use with Stratolaunch so that they could squelch the rising doubts about the company. This deal gives them that. It also probably gives Orbital ATK some extra cash to get them to agree to do it.

Firefly shuts down

More details have been released by the shut down of operations at Firefly Space Systems.

They have furloughed all their employees, having lost one of their major investors. According to the company, the investor did not pull out because of the company’s litigation with Virgin Galactic, but because of its own internal considerations. The article also includes hints that Firefly might be one of the options that Vulcan Aerospace is looking at for building the rocket that its giant airplane Stratolaunch will launch.

Stratolaunch loses top executive

Today it was revealed that Vulcan Aerospace, the company building Stratolaunch, is losing one of its top executives.

Aerospace veteran Chuck Beames is leaving his post as president of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s spaceflight company, Vulcan Aerospace. Word of Beames’ departure came from Allen in an internal email that was sent to Vulcan employees and obtained by GeekWire today. Allen said Jean Floyd, the CEO of Vulcan’s Stratolaunch Systems, will expand his role to become Vulcan Aerospace’s interim executive director as well.

Allen’s email, which you can read in its entirety at the link, also called Orbital ATK “a valued partner.” The last we had heard of this partnership, however, was that Orbital ATK had backed out of it. Allen’s email instead suggests that some renegotiations are going on, and the partnership is not quite dead.

What is happening with Stratolaunch?

Doug Messier at his website Parabolic Arc today asks some pertinent questions about Stratolaunch and their seeming inability to settle on the rocket that will be launched from the giant plane they are building.

After going through SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the company talked to anyone and everyone with a rocket engine or an idea for one. They must have hit pay dirt with someone. [emphasis in original]

As Messier notes, both SpaceX and Orbital ATK have, in that order, made and then broke their partnership with Stratolaunch. Both companies were supposed to build that rocket, but for unknown reasons decided soon after that they couldn’t do this job. Stratolaunch has since been looking for a third company to build that rocket, but apparently has not found it. This information strongly suggests that the rocket companies found some fundamental engineering or management problems at Stratolaunch that scared them off. These same issues are also making it difficult for Stratolaunch to find a third rocket company.

Stratolaunch three quarters complete

The competition heats up: Vulcan Aerospace now says that construction of its Stratolaunch airplane, the largest ever to fly, will be completed by the end of this year.

Assembly of the plane is 76 percent complete, with the engines, landing gear and one tail section still to be installed. The plane is expected to be finished before the end of the year. Commercial services are expected to begin before 2020.

They still have not determined the second stage rocket they will use with this mother ship to launch satellites, which leaves me increasingly skeptical about their future. It is very late in the game to still not know this detail.

Problems at Stratolaunch?

In the heat of competition: Vulcan Aerospace, the company building the giant Stratolaunch airplane designed launch orbital rockets from its underbelly, does not yet have a rocket for this purpose.

Originally that rocket was to be built by SpaceX, but that partnership ended in 2012.

Stratolaunch then contracted out its rocket work to Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK). The company also contracted with Aerojet Rocketdyne for six RL10C-1 rocket engines with an option for six more for use in the launch vehicle’s third stage.

The agreement with Orbital ended without the production of a launch vehicle, with Beames saying the rocket was not economical. Stratolaunch officials said they were reassessing the project in light of the shift in the market recently toward smaller satellites.

In 2015, Beames said that Stratolaunch was examining more than 70 launch vehicles for use with the Stratolaunch aircraft. He indicated that the company might use multiple launch vehicles to serve different payload classes. Beames said the company would announce its launch vehicle strategy in fall 2015, but that time came and went with no announcement. [emphasis mine]

It is very worrisome for them to be hunting for a rocket at this point of design. I am reminded of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo, which changed engine designs midstream, causing them enormous engineering problems and delays.

Stratolaunch shifts to the small sat market

The competition heats up: Even as Vulcan Aerospace, the company building the Stratolaunch air-launch system, considers its options for the second stage rocket that it will use, it has decided to shift its focus towards the small satellite market, including cubesats.

In a sense, they are now aiming at the same cubesat/smallsat market that Virgin Galactic wants with its LauncherOne air-launched rocket. Whether they can build a system cheap enough for these small satellites to afford, however, remains the big question. Their shifting focus, like Virgin Galactic’s, does not bode well for them.

Stratolaunch of Huntsville, Alabama, has already gone through two earlier iterations of its launch vehicle. When Stratolaunch unveiled its plans in December 2011, it planned on using a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Less than a year later, though, Stratolaunch announced it was ending that agreement because SpaceX wanted to focus on the standard version of its Falcon 9.

Stratolaunch then teamed with Orbital Sciences Corp., now Orbital ATK, to develop a launch vehicle. That rocket, called Thunderbolt, featured two solid-fuel stages provided by ATK and an upper stage powered by RL-10 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne. Like the earlier SpaceX design, Thunderbolt was designed to launch medium-class payloads.
Chuck BeamesChuck Beames. Credit: Vulcan Aerospace

Stratolaunch, though, has set that design aside as it seeks to launch smaller satellites, where the company sees a burgeoning market.

One wonders if the cost of building Stratolaunch will be more than this smallsat market can bear.

Problems at Stratolaunch

In the heat of competition: Stratolaunch and Orbital ATK have quietly parted ways as problems have developed in building Stratolaunch’s giant first stage aircraft.

The company went with a radical engineering idea — using a giant airplane as their first stage — which might turn out great but could just as easily become a disaster and failure. Such ideas are by their nature filled with many unknowns.

In a sense, this story validates SpaceX’s approach to developing new space technology, which is to take known engineering and to upgrade it while refining the production methods for building it to lower costs. With this approach, you lower risks by reducing the number of unknowns you have to deal with.