World’s Largest White Elephant Takes to the Sky

I am referring, of course to the late Paul Allen’s abortive Stratolaunch program:

On Saturday morning, exactly 45 minutes after the sun began to rise over the Mojave Desert, the largest airplane ever created—and its record-breaking 385-foot wingspan—took off for the very first time. The aircraft, from the company Stratolaunch, has been eight years in the making. By 2022, the company hopes to use the twin-fuselage, six-engined, catamaran-style aircraft to launch satellite-bearing rockets into space.

“All of you have been very patient and very tolerant over the years waiting for us to get this big bird off the ground, and we finally did it,” Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd told reporters on a press call. The company reported the airplane hit speeds of 189mph and heights of 17,000 feet during its 150-minute test flight, before landing safely at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

“The systems on the airplane ran like a watch,” test pilot Evan Thomas told reporters. But the day’s events were bittersweet. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a longtime space enthusiast who founded and funded the Stratolaunch project, passed away last October at age 65 from complications related to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “Even though he wasn’t there today, as the plane lifted gracefully from the runway, I did whisper a ‘thank you’ to Paul for allowing me to be a part of this remarkable achievement,” Floyd said.

One day soon, Stratolaunch hopes to carry 250-ton rocket ships loaded with satellites to a height of 35,000 feet—into the stratosphere. Once at cruising altitude, a rocket’s engines would ignite, carrying it and its satellite cargo the rest of the way into space. Only a select few facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, can handle rocket launches, which means tight competition for scheduling and long wait times. Airplanes can take off from many more runways, which Stratolaunch hopes will give its aircraft a competitive edge for those wishing to launch satellites into orbit.

The aircraft is a white elephant because, as I noted a few months back, Stratolaunch was designed as an airborne launcher for rockets, but Stratolaunch has abandoned its development for launchers, so there is nothing for it to launch.

There are, and never will be, “250-ton rocket ships loaded with satellites,” for it to carry.

There is talk of Stratolaunch being used to carry the Pegasus XL, but that is 25 tons, and has already been launched from an almost certainly cheaper to operate Lockheed L-1011 carrier, so I do not see how it would make any sense from an economic or a business perspective, even with Stratolaunch having the ability to launch 3 Pegasus XLs simultaneously.

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