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Stratolaunch Wants to Leapfrog the Launch Pad

A 20-worker team at Huntsville-based Stratolaunch Systems — financed by Microsoft pioneer Paul Allen — aims to launch spacecraft with a giant airplane.

Stratolaunch Systems CEO Gary Wentz at the company’s assembly hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Stratolaunch Systems CEO Gary Wentz at the company’s assembly hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Photo courtesy of Stratolaunch Systems

While workers in Decatur and Huntsville continually move forward with newer and more powerful versions of the rockets that propelled the American dream into space half a century ago, a tiny new Huntsville company is working on a new version of those big dreams — a way to lift a rocket into spaceflight that starts in the clouds instead of on the launch pad.

Stratolaunch Systems, headquartered in Huntsville and backed with the financial resources of Microsoft pioneer Paul Allen, is developing a system that carries a rocket into the air nestled under the wings of a massive airplane, drops it, and then launches it into space from the air.

It’s not a new idea, says CEO Gary Wentz. Space dreamer and developer Burt Rutan, one of the company’s original partners, had long worked toward an air-based launch. He partnered with Allen and the new company was launched in 2011.

Despite its big ambitions, Stratolaunch is a small company, says Wentz, with only about 20 employees — but bolstered by contract arrangements and partnerships that tie in some of the nation’s most creative outside-the-launchpad space thinkers. “Huntsville has a lot of that capability — design capability for rockets and missiles,” he adds.

“It’s interesting to see how much you can get done with a small team,” says Wentz.

With a target launch date of 2016, Stratolaunch is moving forward quickly on its project.

Just as the company was announced, Wentz and former NASA co-worker Susan Turner joined the team.  Preparing to build an enormous aircraft, the company leased hangers in Mojave, California — where many commercial space-aimed companies have work space — and got to work on its own facilities.

The air-launch vehicle will be a primary component of Stratolaunch Systems.

Courtesy of Stratolaunch Systems

Since then, the company has started work on its own production facilities and hangar. It has purchased two 747-400s from United Airlines and started the deconstruction that’s the predecessor to rebuilding them as one craft connected at the wing.

“We’ve made significant progress,” says Wentz. “A lot of the major assembly of the aircraft itself is together and we’re starting to build the center wing this month, as well as the fuselage and outer wings.”

Though Stratolaunch began in partnership with Huntsville’s Dynetics and California’s SpaceX (nickname for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.), “We now have a contract with Orbital Sciences in Virginia that designed, built and flew the Pegasus rockets,” says Wentz. Orbital’s Pegasus was the first air-launched rocket to put satellites in orbit and the first privately-developed space launch vehicle. Scaled Composites remains a partner.

Wentz sees several advantages in an air-launched rocket.

First and foremost, it pulls the launch system outside the constraints of ground-based launches where a number of companies compete for limited opportunities.

“But after that, our goal is to be a different system with greater safety, cost effectiveness and flexibility,” says Wentz.

It’s safer because it gets away from the ground, lifting 1,000 nautical miles before launch. “The riskiest part of space flight is to abort on the ground because you have to get the crew away,” he says. “In an air launch, you’re already high enough that chutes can deploy. We have the altitude in our favor.”

Cost effectiveness comes from “breaking free from ground infrastructure.”  Unlike the massive control room team of a NASA launch, Stratolaunch’s project would work with a small technical team and an onboard crew of three.

Who would want to fly this craft that’s more than twice the width of a 747 — wider than a football field?

“Every pilot that works for Scaled Composites is really interested. They’re former flight test pilots and this is a one-of-a-kind aircraft,” says Wentz. “This is just the next thing.”

But the system has engineering challenges, he says. “The rocket has to be structurally different because it takes the loads in a different direction.  It needs to be reinforced structurally.  We have our own challenges in a airborne launch.”

Stratolaunch Systems’ assembly hangar officially opened March 27, 2013, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Work is already underway on the two 747-400s that will become the main elements of the launch vehicle.

Courtesy of Stratolaunch Systems

In essence, the rocket is dropped horizontally and has to turn to head upwards. Fins and wings are being added to the traditional rocket to assist in the turn, which is complicated by the sloshing around of liquid fuels.

Both Wentz and Turner found the Stratolaunch call something they couldn’t ignore after 20-year careers at NASA.

“NASA has stepped away from the space shuttle that I worked on for many years,” says Wentz.

“This looks to me like the next opportunity to actually do human space flight for the country; it was a great draw. And to work for Paul. He’s very visionary. He sees where he wants to go and he has the financial resources to back it.”

Allen’s vision, in Wentz’ words, “is to be the first commercially funded system to put humans in orbit. His vision is that if we can turn this into an affordable system, we can routinely fly people into space. Suborbital is more affordable now and this will be the follow on for that.”

But why go? “It’s the next thing. The next step from Earth. You listen to the NASA vision and they’re researching going to Mars, and other entrepreneurs are looking at that.

“But before that, you need routine safe travel to the Leo environment and that’s this.”

But why go? “Why did we go West? Why go to space? It’s the passion to explore, to move on to the next thing.”

Nedra Bloom is the copy editor for Business Alabama. 

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