It was just six weeks ago that Stratolaunch, a huge all-composite aircraft designed to launch rockets from under its enormous 117 metre-long wingspan, took to the skies for the first time. The maiden flight was hailed as a huge success, but now the space company behind the aircraft is reported to be closing operations and Stratolaunch’s inaugural flight could end up being its last.
Built by the late billionaire and Microsoft Corporation co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation carried on the dream of the entrepreneur after his untimely death last year to ensure the remarkable engineering feat behind the aircraft was a viable one.
Stratolaunch Systems, which is part of Allen's new aerospace company Vulcan Aerospace, a subsidiary of Vulcan, Inc, announced in 2014 that it was considering multiple launch vehicle options over a range of satellite sizes, to rival the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin – those seen as traditional aerospace companies.
However, the air-launch program has been running behind schedule for years, in part due to the problems experienced trying to find a booster capable of lifting the Stratolaunch payload delivery vehicle into space. Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Northrop Grumman) were hired to build a suitable medium-lift booster, but neither produced a rocket by the time the agreements ended.
Instead, Stratolaunch settled on using Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL small satellite booster while it focused on developing its own series of rockets. Stratolaunch even signed an agreement with NASA to providing testing services of its propulsion system, and the company completed the first hot-fire test of the "pre-burner" portion of its engine at NASA's Stennis Space Center in 2018, but in January of this year, development on the engine ceased.
Allen poured not just his heart and soul into the project, but also a substantial amount of money since it was founded eight years ago but rumours abounded that his sister Jody, who is now the executor of the estate, is not as enthusiastic about the program as her brother was and since his passing, the company has been reported as being on shaky ground.
Sources close to the company said Jody Allen decided to let the carrier aircraft fly to honour her brother’s wishes and also to prove, like her sibling, that the vehicle and the concept behind it worked, reports Reuters website.
There has been no official statement yet from any of the parties involved regarding the company’s closure and the fate of the aircraft, nicknamed Roc, although it is possible that Stratolaunch’s assets may be sold, if buyers can be found.