Stratolaunch test flight of Roc ends prematurely

Capitalism in space: A recent Stratolaunch test flight of its giant carrier airplane Roc was ended prematurely because engineers had detected an unexpected “test result”.

“While completing Roc testing operations, we encountered a test result that made it clear we would not achieve all objectives for this flight,” the California-based company, which was created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago, said in Twitter update. “We made the decision to land, review the data, and prepare for our next flight.”

The company has provided little additional information. The flight itself was planned to last as much as 3.5 hours, but only lasted about an hour and a half.

Stratolaunch’s present plan is to offer Roc and its Talon-A payload as a testbed for testing hypersonic flight.

Stratolaunch unveils first Talon-A test vehicle

The pylon and Talon test vehicle attached to Roc
Click for original image.

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch yesterday released the first pictures of its first Talon-A test vehicle, dubbed TA-0, to be used to test in-flight the pylon on the company’s giant Roc airplane that the Talon-A will be attached to.

The photo to the right, reduced, enhanced, and annotated to post here, shows the test vehicle attached to the pylon which hangs from the bottom of Roc’s wing. From the press release:

The pylon, which was introduced during Roc’s fifth test flight on May 4, will be used to carry and release Talon-A hypersonic vehicles. The hardware is comprised of a mini-wing and adapter that is constructed with aluminum and carbon fiber skins. It weighs approximately 8,000 pounds and occupies 14 feet of Roc’s 95-foot center wingspan, allowing for adequate space between the aircraft’s dual fuselages for safe vehicle release and launch. The custom structure also features a winch system that will load Talon-A vehicles onto the platform from the ground, expediting launch preparation and reducing the need for ground support.

Although this first version of Talon-A will not be powered in flight, its future iterations will be rocket-powered, autonomous, reusable testbeds carrying customizable payloads at speeds above Mach 5. TA-0 will continue functional and integration testing in the coming months, culminating in a captive carry and vehicle flight later this year. After completing TA-0 separation testing, the company will transition to flying its first hypersonic test vehicle, TA-1. The team has also started fabrication of a third vehicle, TA-2, the first fully reusable hypersonic test vehicle.

The development and initial testing of Talon-A is partly funded from a contract with the Air Force. If successful, the Air Force will likely move on to purchasing actual hypersonic test flights.

Stratolaunch completes 5th test flight of giant Roc airplane

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch yesterday successfully completed the fifth test flight of its giant Roc airplane, now being designed for testing hypersonic vehicles in flight.

You can read the press release here [pdf], which stated the following:

The fifth flight debuted a new pylon on the aircraft’s center wing that will be used to carry and release Talon-A hypersonic vehicles. The hardware is comprised of a mini-wing and adapter that is constructed with aluminum and carbon fiber skins. It weighs approximately 8,000 pounds and occupies 14 feet of Roc’s 95-foot center wingspan, allowing for adequate space between the aircraft’s dual fuselages for safe vehicle release and launch. The state-of-the-art structure also features a winch system that will load Talon onto the platform from the ground, expediting launch preparation and reducing the need for ground support.

The company has been building two Talon hypersonic vehicles, and now has a third under construction. This third Talon is intended to be reuseable. All will be used as part of the company’s contract with the Air Force to test hypersonic technology, with the first flights now scheduled for ’23.

Stratolaunch’s Roc successfully completes 4th test flight

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch’s Roc airplane, the largest ever flown, successfully completed its 4th flight yesterday, testing for the first time the retraction and extension of its landing gear.

The flight lasted one hour and forty-three minutes.

The company is now aiming to begin full operations in the second half of ’23, when it hopes it will also be dropping versions of its Talon-A test vehicle from the bottom of Roc to perform hypersonic tests for the military as well as commercial companies.

Stratolaunch wins Air Force hypersonic research contract

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today announced [pdf] that is has been awarded by the Air Force contract to study whether its Roc aircraft carrier and Talon-A research craft will be useful in test hypersonic weapons and spacecraft.

Stratolaunch, LLC is pleased to announce a research contract with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

Stratolaunch, under partnership with Booz Allen Hamilton, is on contract with AFRL to examine and assess the feasibility of hypersonic flight tests of a wide range of Air Force experiments and payloads on a frequent and routine basis.

Stratolaunch supports national security objectives for hypersonic offensive and defensive weapons development through the design, manufacture, and operation of a fleet of reusable hypersonic aerospace vehicles air-launched from its globally deployable carrier aircraft, Roc. The company plans to augment existing Department of Defense flight test resources through affordable, commercially contracted, rapid-turnaround hypersonic flight testing for the Department of Defense and its prime contractor partners.

This contract is not to do actual tests, but to study whether Stratolaunch’s equipment can make hypersonic tests easier, cheaper, and more frequent, as the company promises.

Stratolaunch’s giant Roc airplane makes third test flight

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today successfully completed the third test flight of its giant Roc airplane, now being optimized to provide a test bed for launching hypersonic test vehicles.

Today’s flight was conducted from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port and lasted four hours and 23 minutes. It came nearly three years after Roc’s first aerlal test, and almost a year after the second flight. The outing’s main objective was to evaluate the airplane’s performance and handling characteristics at increased altitude, and to retract and extend the left mid-main landing gear.

Stratolaunch said Roc reached an altitude of 23,500 feet at an indicated air speed of 180 knots (207 mph), besting the previous flight test’s maximum altitude of 14,000 feet. Before landing, the plane’s crew conducted a couple of close approaches for testing purposes.

The company plans about six to eight more Roc test flights leading up to the first test flights of its hypersonic Talon-A test vehicle, of which Stratolaunch is presently developing two.

I have embedded below the fold the video of the flight, cued about one hour twelve minutes after the start of the live stream to the moment Roc takes off. Those geeks in my readership might want to go back to the beginning to hear the full almost six-hour-long broadcast. My impression is that Stratolaunch provided some excellent announcers to provide technical details describing what is happening.
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Stratolaunch wins military research contract

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch announced today [pdf] that it has won research contract with the Missile Defense Agency to provide a testing capability to that agency’s program to develop hypersonic flight technology.

The Stratolaunch team is eagerly preparing to complete its next set of Roc carrier aircraft test flights. The team also continues to make tremendous strides in building its first two Talon-A test vehicles: TA-0 and TA-1. TA-1 will start its power-on testing by the end of year, keeping the company on track to begin hypersonic flight testing in 2022 and to deliver services to government and commercial customers in 2023. Launched from Stratolaunch’s Roc carrier aircraft, the Talon-A vehicles are rocket-powered, autonomous, reusable testbeds carrying customized payloads at speeds above Mach 5.

From this release it appears that the company is planning more flight tests of its giant Roc airplane while it begins the first ground tests of the test vehicles that Roc will take into the air, followed in ’22 with flight tests, followed next with operational test flights in ’23.

The company’s shift from using Roc as a first stage for orbital satellites to using it instead as a hypersonic test bed seems to be paying off. For years the company was unable to find any design for second stage rocket that made both technical or economic sense. Using Roc instead as a vehicle for launching a hypersonic test bed — the Talon — seems more practical, while also providing the military a relatively cheap capability for hypersonic testing that it had previously lacked.

Stratolaunch’s Roc, biggest plane ever, makes 2nd flight

Stratolaunch today successfully completed the second test flight of its gigantic airplane Roc, biggest plane ever flown, and the first flight in two years.

Today’s takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time the plane, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, got off the ground since Stratolaunch’s acquisition by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc rose as high as 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes — which is close to an hour longer than the first flight on April 13, 2019. During that earlier flight, the airplane reached a maximum speed of 189 mph and maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Since the death of Paul Allen, the original owner, Cererus has re-purposed Roc from a platform for orbital rockets to a testbed platform for launching the three hypersonic test planes that the company is building. These planes will allow for regular and frequent flight tests of this technology, something that has been lacking since the days of the X-15 in the 1950s.

Stratolaunch now wants to build a reuseable hypersonic vehicle

Capitalsm in space: Stratolaunch announced today that they are now planning to build a reusable hypersonic test vehicle to launch from their giant Roc airplane.

That vehicle, powered by a liquid-propellant rocket engine, will launch from the company’s aircraft and fly to speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 7 before gliding back to a runway landing. It will also be able to take off on its own from a runway under rocket power.

“The Stratolaunch Talon-A is a flexible, high-speed testbed built for offensive hypersonics, hypersonic defense and hypersonic R&D,” the company said in a fact sheet about the program. That document emphasizes the vehicle’s ability to provide “here-to-fore unobtainable measurement access to the hypersonic flight environment on a recurring basis.”

Forgive me if I remain skeptical. From memory I think this is about the fifth different design or concept for launch from Roc, with the previous proposals differing from this hypersonic test vehicle in that they were all intended to go to orbit. All were the same however in that they were trying to find a design that could be launched from Roc and also make engineering and economic sense. So far none has done so.

This new proposal is clearly aimed at garnering government research dollars. It also probably wants those dollars to pay for Talon-A’s development. In a sane world, the military would tell Stratolaunch to build and prove Talon-A’s capabilities first, before signing on.

When it comes to government spending, however, we however are no longer in a sane world.

Buyer of Stratolaunch revealed though unconfirmed

A news story today at Geekwire has revealed, based on business filings in Washington and California, the new owner of the company Stratolaunch.

Filings with regulators in California and Washington show that a new LLC business, also called Stratolaunch, was incorporated in late October, at Stratolaunch’s existing offices in Seattle and Mojave, Calif. The new Stratolaunch’s executive vice president is named as Michael Palmer, Cerberus’ managing director.

Private-equity firms typically replace existing managers as a prelude to realigning businesses they buy, which can involve firing, automation and offshoring. However, it appears that Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s president and CEO since 2015, remains in his roles for now.

It appears the new owners, who did not confirm the Geekwire story, are now marketing the huge Roc airplane as a launch platform for hypersonic test flights rather than orbital satellites.

Northrop Grumman buys back Pegasus rockets from Stratolaunch

Northrop Grumman announced this week that it has bought back from Stratolaunch the two Pegasus rockets that company had bought for the purpose of launch from its giant Roc airplane.

Phil Joyce, vice president of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman, said this week that the company is trying to sell the launches using the two remaining Pegasus XL rockets, and officials plan to keep the Pegasus rocket’s L-1011 carrier jet flying for at least five or 10 more years.

The airborne launch of NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, scientific satellite Thursday night off Florida’s east coast is the final scheduled flight of a Pegasus XL rocket. Variants of the solid-fueled Pegasus rocket have flown on 43 satellite delivery missions since 1990.

“We actually purchased those back (from Stratolaunch),” Joyce said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “So they’re in a very advanced state of integration, which means they’re available for a very rapid response launch. We could launch one of those in six months, the second one probably in eight (months).

This buy back tells us two things, both negative, about both companies. With Stratolaunch, it means they have abandoned entirely the idea of launching satellites using a combination of Roc and Pegasus. The reasons are unclear, but I would guess that they have either discovered the engineering didn’t work, or the economics made the combination unprofitable, being too expensive.

As for Pegasus, it appears the rocket has no further contracts, and has had so much trouble drumming up business that they have decided not to build more. Instead, they are going to try to get contracts for these already built Pegasuses, and are likely going to offer lower prices for them. Even if this works, it does appear that we are about to see the end of the Pegasus rocket.

Created in the early 1980s by Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK) as a cheaper alternative to the expensive big rockets of the time, Pegasus had a viable business model for years. Slowly over time however its launch price rose, until it was no longer very cheap. And when SpaceX and other new cheaper alternatives arrived in the past six years, the company, eventually absorbed by Northrop Grumman, was unable to remain competitive.

The irony here is that Northrop Grumman purchased Orbital ATK expressly to allow it to enter the launch market, using both Pegasus and Antares. With Pegasus gone, and Antares still failing to find any customers other than NASA, it doesn’t look like the merger is paying off well for the company.

Stratolaunch has begun hiring again

Capitalism in space: After a retrenchment where the company trimmed its staff last year, Stratolaunch has now begun hiring again.

Allen founded the venture in 2011, with the goal of using what is now the world’s largest airplane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets and space planes. But after his death at the age of 65, Stratolaunch trimmed its staff dramatically. Some saw April’s test flight at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port as primarily a tribute to Allen, and as the prelude to either a sale or a shutdown.

Representatives of the Allen family’s Vulcan holding company have insisted that Stratolaunch remains operational. LinkedIn listings indicate that Jean Floyd is still president and CEO, although three company vice presidents left in July.

Now Stratolaunch is posting 11 job openings, including listings for two test pilots. “As a test pilot on the history-making Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world’s largest-wingspan aircraft, you will have the opportunity to accomplish new milestones in aviation,” the company says. The pilot positions are among nine openings in Mojave, with two openings (for a purchasing agent and a contract specialist) based in Seattle.

It however remains unclear the exact manner in which their giant plane Roc will be used. So far there appears little interest in using it, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, to launch satellites. It could be that the plane might instead be used in connection with ground-based operations.

Stratolaunch completes taxi test at 80 mph

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch this week completed a series of taxi tests with its giant airplane Roc, reaching speeds as much as 80 mph.

This is a little less than half the speed required for take-off. It also appears that they are proceeding very cautiously with these taxi tests, increasing the speed with each new test by small amounts, about 20 to 40 mph.

The big moment will of course be when this giant plane actually takes off. It appears that might happen within a month or so.

Stratolaunch to build its own upper stages

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today announced that it is designing and building three differently-sized upper stage rockets to attach to the fuselage of its giant Roc airplane.

Beside the Pegasus rocket, owned by Northrop Grumman, aimed for first flight in 2020, Stratolaunch will build a medium and medium-heavy rockets, with the former set for a 2022 flight, as well as a fully reusable space plane, now in early development.

The space plane concept would apparently be capable of taking payloads up and down from orbit, and could therefore become the first totally reusable launch capability.

Overall, it does appear that the company, unable to find someone else to design its upper stage, has been forced to do it itself.

More testing of “Roc,” Stratolaunch’s giant airplane

This past weekend Stratolaunch completed more tests on its giant airplane, now nicknamed “Roc.”

They had intended to do another taxi test, but didn’t for some reason. Instead, they did test fueling operations. full-power engine tests, and communication tests.

Their upcoming schedule appears to me to be very extended.

Stratolaunch executives laid out the test schedule for the plane, which was built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, during a space conference in April. The company plans to follow up on the first two taxi tests (at runway speeds of 15 mph and 40 knots) with three more at speeds of 70, 85 and 120 knots.

The last speed is roughly what’s needed for takeoff.

After the fifth taxi test, Stratolaunch would put the plane into the air for a series of flight tests over the course of what’s expected to be 18 to 24 months. In April, executives said they were targeting the first flight test for this summer (which technically runs until Sept. 23).

They also have not yet announced any launch contracts, though there have been announcements that both Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne will fly on Roc.