Calif. — In the high Mojave Desert, the airframe of
Paul Allen’s giant, mysterious plane for carrying
rockets into space is approaching completion.
has twin fuselages, 95 feet apart, that are joined
across the top by a massive wing, 385 feet from tip to
tip — longer than a football field including the end
a larger wingspan than any aircraft ever built, the six-engined
plane — officially called Stratolaunch — has been
nicknamed the Roc, after a mythical Middle Eastern bird
so big it could carry an elephant in its claws.
of a major space-industry conference this week in
Seattle, Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace last week opened up
the secretive assembly plant to a small group of
journalists, among other things letting them walk across
that massive wing.
visit suggests that the challenge for Allen’s
ambitious project is not whether his plane will fly, but
whether his business plan will.
concept is that this airplane will carry a rocket
weighing up to 275 tons slung beneath the central part
of the wing — between the two fuselages — and
release it at 35,000 feet. The rocket will then launch
into space and deliver satellites into orbit.
today’s massive Atlas and Delta rockets that launch
vertically from Earth, the Roc will be able to land,
load up and take off again, making space access easier
and cheaper. It’s supposed to be more like a routine
airport operation than a big Cape Canaveral-style deal.
such access to space is routine, innovation will
accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently
imagine," Allen said in an emailed statement.
this first close-up look at the great beast elicited not
so much a wow response, more a "what the
heck?" The plane is awesomely big but also
enough is the basic twin-fuselage, single-wing concept,
which gives it the overall look of a pair of insects
conjoined at the wing and enlarged to the size of a
still is the shape of the fuselages, each individually
looking like a mythical hybrid beast that morphs from
boxy at one end to sleek at the other.
is the fanciful work of Scaled Composites, the
innovative experimental aircraft firm founded by Burt
Rutan that has designed and built the airplane and will
fly it for Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace.
jet airliner you’ve ever flown in has a round
fuselage, eschewing corners that could become points of
excess pressure. But because the Roc’s aft fuselages
are largely empty and unpressurized, the engineers of
Scaled Composites went with a simpler-to-build boxy body
at the back, rectangular in cross-section.
the middle of the airplane, its body thickens
considerably where it’s topped by the wing, to create
clearance for the rocket slung under the wing’s center
forward end of each fuselage is round, because it’s
pressurized, and a long drooping neck tapers to a Boeing
747 cockpit, so that it resembles a dinosaur dipping to
three-person crew — pilot, co-pilot and flight
engineer — will sit in a cockpit in the right-hand
fuselage, maneuvering the plane from far to the right of
left-hand fuselage has what looks from outside like a
cockpit with windows, but it’s empty and unpressurized.
crew will enter the cockpit through an oval door that’s
less than 5 feet tall, as if sized for a hobbit. It’s
clear this vehicle is designed to carry test pilots, not
crew’s flight deck is literally that of a 747.
bought two used jumbo jets formerly flown by United
Airlines and cannibalized them for parts that account
for about half the empty weight of the Roc.
although the shell of the cockpit and all the rest of
the plane’s body is new — hand-built by Scaled
Composites from carbon fiber composites — various key
pieces and systems, including avionics, hydraulics and
fuel subsystems, are salvaged 747 parts. BAE Systems was
subcontracted to disassemble the 747 and install its
systems on the Roc.
cockpit seats look old and used because they are. The
seats as well as the controls the crew will manipulate
and the windows they’ll look out of all came from the
did the plane’s six Pratt & Whitney engines, which
are already refurbished, cleaned, wrapped and set aside
in a corner, ready to hang on the airframe when it’s
pods around those engines, the 747 nacelles, and the
pylons they will hang from are also ready.
week, workers were busy completing the struts that will
cantilever the engines far out ahead of the wing and
installing the connections that will link the engines to
the airplane’s control systems.
plane will have six sets of 747 main landing gear, each
with four wheels, and two sets of 747 nose landing gear,
each with two wheels.
the overall look is nothing like a 747.
the ends of the immense wings are very un-Boeing-like
winglets, fins that could have come off a 1960 Cadillac
Coupe de Ville.
doubt they weren’t put there just to look different
and cool, but they do.
little doubt that the Roc will fly.
Composites, which has 300 people working on the project,
has a successful enough track record. For example, it
built the much smaller but also dual-hulled White Knight
Two, the mothership used to launch a small suborbital
Galactic plans to use White Knight Two to take tourists
briefly to the edge of space.
Scaled Composites has clearly been painstaking in
building the Roc.
a rocket attached, the aircraft will weigh 1.3 million
pounds, equal to the fully loaded weight of the world’s
largest civil airliner, the Airbus A380 double-decker
jet that carries about 550 passengers.
Industries of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., a leading maker of
composite tooling and parts, made about 40 percent of
the Roc’s composite structure and trucked the pieces
also supplied huge fiberglass molds used in the Mojave
facility to shape and fabricate large structural pieces
such as the vertical tail.
the highly automated manufacturing of Boeing’s 787,
where robotic heads lay down strips of carbon fiber tape
that is then baked to hardness in a huge pressurized
oven, the composite pieces of Allen’s one-off airplane
to the 100,000-square-foot assembly building, T-shaped
to accommodate the massive wings, is a separate,
similarly sized fabrication facility, where Scaled
Composites made such challenging carbon fiber parts as
the jet’s 250-foot long single-piece wing spars.
week, two young women in a cold room there cut composite
fabric and applied it by hand onto molds to fabricate
some of the few parts still to be made.
two young guys installed actuators that move the rudder
on the right tail, the last piece of the airframe still
to go on.
the assembly building, the nearly completed airframe sat
raised up on hefty metal stands, missing only that tail,
its engines and its landing gear.
the structure, workers used vacuum bags and applied heat
to bond strengthening strips of composite on various
pieces of the Roc’s skin.
unclear is whether Stratolaunch will ever succeed as a
business so that the Roc gets to fly more than a few
Allen first announced his project in Seattle in 2011,
the business plan has changed several times, losing key
partners along the way.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX was going to provide the launch
rocket fitted beneath the Roc. SpaceX pulled out, to be
replaced by Orbital ATK, which then also dropped out.
first goal of Stratolaunch has been to launch satellites
at one point, Sierra Nevada, the Sparks, Nev.-based
builder of a space vehicle called Dream Chaser, was
invited to build a smaller version of that vehicle to
fit under the Roc for potential human spaceflight. That
plan, too, was shelved indefinitely.
the meantime, Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue
Origin have successfully pioneered new reusable
ground-launched rockets that are already dramatically
lowering the cost of access to space.
even the satellite-launch business has changed radically
in the five years since Stratolaunch began.
there are multiple startups interested in finding new
applications for satellites, boosting demand for launch
the demand has shifted mostly toward small, even tiny
satellites going to low earth orbit, not the huge,
minivan-sized satellites that used to be standard.
a result, there are also new startups chasing new, even
cheaper ways to launch these small satellites. Among
them are Firefly, based in Cedar Park, Texas, and Los
Angeles-based Rocket Lab, founded by New Zealander Peter
Allen, in his emailed statement, compared this new wave
of interest in space to the introduction of personal
computers, the advent of the web and the proliferation
expanded access to low earth orbit "holds similar
revolutionary potential," Allen wrote.
some consider that the Stratolaunch may be overbuilt for
this new world of smaller-scale satellites.
Aerospace president Chuck Beames said the large size of
the Roc provides Stratolauch the flexibility to carry
all loads, big or small, ensuring success however the
in a briefing in Mojave, he provided no details of any
new partners or contracts. He said many deals are in the
works but cannot be talked about yet.
Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at
the University of Washington, said Vulcan’s lack of
transparency makes it difficult to assess Stratolaunch’s
launching a rocket from the air is an interesting idea,
miniaturization of satellites has changed the technology
requirements in ways that could leave the Roc stranded,
developed this behemoth launch system and the market is
changing under them," he said. "I would not
use this launch system if I was launching a handful of
cubesats, which are very small."
the progress in Mojave, it’s clear there’s a long
way to go before the Roc can roll out of the assembly
the airframe is done, all the electrical, pneumatic and
hydraulic systems must be installed.
once it rolls out, it could take nearly a year of ground
tests before it would fly.
officials said assembly is about 76 percent complete.
reporter suggested to Beames that a rollout this year
looks unlikely given the current state of the project.
That would push out the first flight to late next year.
be pleasantly surprised," Beames responded, adding
that "there’s no pressure to bring this thing on
line … until it’s done correctly."
Allen’s virtually bottomless purse is funding the
project now, by the time the plane flies, Stratolaunch
will need a solid business plan to keep going.
won’t want to emulate Howard Hughes, who in 1947 flew
his eight-engined, 320-foot wingspan Spruce Goose on its
first flight — which lasted about a mile at just 70
feet above the water.
never flew again, and the Spruce Goose became a famous