Paul Allen’s Mammoth Stratolaunch Is Actually a Lean Weapon in a New Space Race

 


Stratolaunch would be he largest airplane ever flown once it gets off the ground. (Photo courtesy of Stratolaunch Systems Inc.)

 

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Paul Allen’s Mammoth Stratolaunch Is Actually a Lean Weapon in a New Space Race

by Dan Reed
June 2, 2017

 

To the skeptics out there: Paul Allen’s gigantic Stratolaunch plane is no Spruce Goose.

Do we owe Howard Hughes an apology?

Probably not.

The brilliant yet exceedingly eccentric billionaire engineer, aviator, industrialist, film producer and studio owner who in the last years of his life became a drug-addled, obsessive-compulsive germophobic and unkempt hermit, has been ridiculed for 70 years now for building and flying a giant, ungainly wooden airplane dubbed the Spruce Goose. Officially called the H-4 Hercules, the Spruce Goose, a flying boat design, made it into the air just once – by only a few feet and for only about one mile. And Hughes and his boondoggle of an airplane became the punch line in wisecracks about misguided, even dumb investments in obviously wrong-headed applications of technology.

Now Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has built a plane that’s even bigger and more ridiculous-looking than Hughes’ legendary failure. But don’t laugh.

 

 

To be sure, Allen has his own eccentricities. For example, he owns, among many other things, two museums featuring: 1.) the finest collection of “vintage” computers in the world, and 2.) around two dozen military airplanes, most of them of World War II vintage abut at least one exotic modern fighter jet, a Russian-built MiG-29. He also keeps a small fleet of modern jets, helicopters and yachts for his personal use. And, for fun, he owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers.

But Allen is no Howard Hughes.

Hughes’ Spruce Goose failed not only because the engine technology of the late 1940s was inadequate to fly such a large plane reliably and practically. It also failed because there never was any commercial demand for such an enormous airplane (Hughes knew that from the start but he built the plane anyway). Allen’s creation, on the other hand, has a real shot at commercial viability, albeit in a very small but very interesting and potentially very lucrative niche market.

Passengers likely will never fly on it. That’s because, as its name suggests, the Stratolaunch is designed for just one mission: launching satellites into low earth orbit at a fraction of the cost of a satellite launched via a conventional rocket launch system.

Earlier this week Allen put on display for the first time his huge new plane, built by the secretive Vulcan Aerospace (which Allen owns) over the last six years in a massive hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the high desert north of Los Angeles. The Stratolaunch features not one, but two large fuselages connected by wings that stretch 385 feet across. That’s 25 feet longer than a football field, end zones included. The Stratolaunch has 28 wheels and will be powered by SIX huge jet engines similar to the four that hang on the wings of Boeing 747s.

 


Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discusses his new project. (Stratolaunch. Kevin P. Casey/Bloomberg)

 

To be sure, Allen has his own eccentricities. For example, he owns, among many other things, two museums featuring: 1.) the finest collection of “vintage” computers  in the world, and 2.) around two dozen military airplanes, most of them of World War II vintage abut at least one exotic modern fighter jet, a Russian-built MiG-29. He also keeps a small fleet of modern jets, helicopters and yachts for his personal use. And, for fun, he owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers.

But Allen is no Howard Hughes.

Hughes’ Spruce Goose failed not only because the engine technology of the late 1940s was inadequate to fly such a large plane reliably and practically. It also failed because there never was any commercial demand for such an enormous airplane (Hughes knew that from the start but he built the plane anyway). Allen’s creation, on the other hand, has a real shot at commercial viability, albeit in a very small but very interesting and potentially very lucrative niche market.

Passengers likely will never fly on it. That’s because, as its name suggests, the Stratolaunch is designed for just one mission: launching satellites into low earth orbit at a fraction of the cost of a satellite launched via a conventional rocket launch system.

Earlier this week Allen put on display for the first time his huge new plane, built by the secretive Vulcan Aerospace (which Allen owns) over the last six years in a massive hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the high desert north of Los Angeles. The Stratolaunch features not one, but two large fuselages connected by wings that stretch 385 feet across. That’s 25 feet longer than a football field, end zones included. The Stratolaunch has 28 wheels and will be powered by SIX huge jet engines similar to the four that hang on the wings of Boeing 747s.

It hasn’t flown yet, but when it enters service (expected in 2020) it will be used to ferry rockets weighing up to 550,000 pounds (50,000 more pounds than the weight of the Stratolaunch itself) up to about 35,000 feet. Once it reaches that altitude the Stratolaunch will release its rocket payload which, after a couple seconds of free fall will fire its own engines and haul its satellite payload into low earth orbit (about 120 miles above Earth’s surface, where the International Space Station operates).  Meanwhile the Stratolaunch will fly back to its base for a conventional airplane-style landing. In theory the Stratolaunch could be reloaded with another payload for launch the following day, if enough demand exists.

And that’s where the story of the Stratolaunch will get really interesting. It actually has competition.

Virgin Orbit, a satellite launch company separated from global entrepreneur Richard Branson’s tragedy-marred Virgin Galactic commercial human space travel project, plans to offer similar satellite launch services using a modified Boeing 747-400 acquired from Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline.

The passenger-focused Virgin Galactic project was slowed to a near halt after the deadly October 2014 test flight failure of its SpaceShipTwo passenger-carrying craft. Virgin Orbit was dreamed up as a quicker way to get into the satellite launching business once it became apparent that it’ll take much more time to get the deadly bugs out of, and prove the Virgin Galactic/SpaceShipTwo space tourism vehicle.

There’s irony in the Allen vs. Branson competition. Allen initially bankrolled the work of legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites. Rutan is the aeronautical engineering genius behind the all-composite, moth-like Voyager that successfully flew around the world on one tank of gas in 1986. He worked with Allen on the development of SpaceShipOne. That’s the proof-of-concept, rocket-powered demonstrator that in 2004 successfully made the first private manned space flight (with test pilots aboard).

Allen, however, grew concerned about the additional risk and high costs involved in building SpaceShipTwo as a true space tourism vehicle and walked away from the project in 2011. Rutan retired around the same time. And the technology, which Allen owned, was licensed to the investment group led by Branson.

Now Allen is preparing to enter the less risky and less costly satellite launching business using Stratolaunch, a super-sized version of White Knight, the mothership that launched SpaceShipOne and which eventually is supposed to launch SpaceShipTwo and its human passengers into space.

But Branson’s Virgin Orbit won’t be Allen’s only competitor in the satellite launching business. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, the visionary billionaire behind Tesla, SolarCity, OpenAi, Neuralink, Zip2, X.com and PayPal, already is testing its reusable satellite launch system, and has successfully managed to land a rocket following its launch.

United Launch Alliance, a 50/50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin has been launching commercial and military satellites, for a hefty fee, for a decade. It uses conventional rockets originally developed for the U.S. Air Force and NASA by its two parent companies and/or their predecessor companies.

Additionally, both Russia and the European Space Agency, continue to haul satellites into space from their conventional rocket launch facilities for commercial customers, as do the space agencies of several other nations.

But it is Allen who appears best-positioned to win the competition, assuming Stratolaunch’s flight testing doesn’t uncover major flaws.

Putting satellites into space is an enormously costly endeavor. Moving a 500,000-ton metal tower into space requires a massive amount of power, especially if it’s launched vertically from the ground. But Rutan’s concept of “flying” that rocket to 35,000 feet strapped to a more-or-less conventional airplane before releasing it and letting its rocket engines push it the rest of the way both requires less fuel and eliminates the need for a massively powerful and costly first stage rocket.

The investment in technologies and facilities necessary to create a reliable and safe space launch operation is enough to cripple all but the wealthiest of entrepreneurs – like Allen and Musk – and corporate giants – like Lockheed and Boeing.

By removing all of the human and, as a result, much of the technological risk, from the Stratolaunch approach, Allen is aiming to become the low-cost provider among a field of very, very high-cost providers. Since Stratolaunch won’t be carrying passengers Allen’s team doesn’t have to build bigger and more overly-engineered vehicles to carry them safely into space and back. And by adopting the mothership/launch vehicle approach Allen and company will reap the benefits of both lower launch costs and launch equipment that can be turned around for another launch in one day’s time. Even Musk’s SpaceX, which plans to re-use its launch vehicles multiple times, will need several weeks to prepare its launch vehicles to be used again.

Because of the cost advantage that Stratolaunch is expected to have it also should have the best shot of surviving the bloody early competition among private space launch companies. Certainly Musk, with an estimated worth of more than $15 billion, can absorb big losses if he chooses to do so. But Allen is even richer (his net worth around $21 billion) and is less exposed to potential negative economic events than Musk, whose other high profile companies like Tesla and Solar City, are still losing lots of money. And Allen, as a private investor, does not have to defend his investment in the surprisingly competitive space launch industry the way that publicly traded Lockheed and Boeing must.

Thus Allen, if he wants to, can win any economic war of attrition.

And such a war of attrition certainly is possible.

At this point it’s impossible to know if there’ll ever be enough demand for space launch services in the future to support all of the competitors aiming to serve that market. Currently there are nearly 2,300 satellites circling Earth. But mankind has been putting satellites up there for nearly 60 years (hundreds of them have burned up after their orbits decayed and they plummeted through the atmosphere), so it’s not a high volume business. In fact, last year there were only about 85 satellite launches globally.

But let’s say demand grows to 100 satellite launches a year, globally. Is that enough to keep all the competitors fully employed? Can they all make a profit, especially if launch customers use the existence of so many competitors in the market to drive down the price of launches?

Now, let’s assume that Stratolaunch, which in theory could handle all 100 launches by itself, manages to get a 40% share of the launch market. Would the remainder, launched at deeply discounted prices no doubt, be enough to keep all the other space launch competitors in business?

We got a strong hint earlier this year that the answer likely is “no.” In January ULA, despite the deep pockets of its owners, laid off 400 employees, or about 12 percent of its workforce. That implies that its corporate masters, Boeing and Lockheed, are dissatisfied with the current returns on their investment in ULA. And if Allen’s Stratolaunch successfully captures a big slice of the market their dissatisfaction is bound to grow.

Thus, it’s hard to see how ULA, SpaceX, ESA, Russia’s Roscosmos, Japan’s JAXA, China’s CNSA, India’s ISRO, and potentially still more satellite-launching organizations can all survive if Stratolaunch lives up to expectations.

Thus, it appears that Paul Allen is no Howard Hughes. And that’s a good thing.

This article was originally published by Forbes. Read the original article.