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Stratolauncher illustration
Stratolaunch Systems had to change course last week when it parted ways with SpaceX, who was to develop the launch vehicle, in favor of Orbital Sciences. (credit: Stratolaunch Systems)


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In 2001, Silicon Valley billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins decided that he wanted a yacht. So he commissioned Perini Navi to build him a yacht—the biggest, most high-tech sailing ship ever built, with a bridge that looks like it belongs on the starship Enterprise. He named it The Maltese Falcon and it cost $130 million. In 2008 author David Kaplan published a book about it, appropriately titled Mine’s Bigger.

When Allen’s plans to build the Stratolauncher were made public in December 2011, the announcement was met with some degree of puzzlement by various news outlets and analysts.

That story comes to mind with the recent announcement that Stratolaunch Systems, funded by billionaire Paul Allen, has parted ways with SpaceX, one of the original partners on the air-launch system (see “Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?”, The Space Review, December 19, 2011). SpaceX was supposed to build the rocket that would be dropped from the giant Stratolauncher airplane and carry payloads into Earth orbit. Now Stratolaunch has sought out SpaceX rival Orbital Sciences to investigate building a rocket for the project.

A Stratolaunch executive announced that their separation from SpaceX had to do with the technical modifications required to adapt a rocket to the aircraft. Presumably this would have been a distraction for SpaceX, which already has a pretty full plate upgrading its Falcon 9, building the Falcon Heavy, developing the Dragon crew capsule, and testing the Grasshopper flyback vehicle. While it is never a great idea to turn down somebody who wants to pay you money to do something, SpaceX isn’t exactly short of customers. In addition, if they had been successful at building the air launched rocket, this would have placed the company in the awkward position of competing against itself. So the divorce makes perfect sense, and Orbital, with its experience with the Pegasus rocket, knows more about air launch than anybody else.

But the announcement is an obvious setback for Stratolaunch. SpaceX had joined the team about a year ago, so now Stratolaunch has lost a year of development. This should, but probably won’t, pound another nail into one of the conspiracy theories attempting to explain why this project exists at all.

When Allen’s plans to build the Stratolauncher were made public in December 2011, the announcement was met with some degree of puzzlement by various news outlets and analysts. The private rocket, many realized, would face substantial technical challenges and a potentially huge price tag. It would also be pursuing a part of the launch market that is at best a niche. This led various people to try and develop a rationale for why Allen is really building this rocket, and soon some people started coming up with conspiracy theories.

The explanation that started to circulate in space circles was that the official story is a cover for a classified mission launching covert satellites into secret orbits. It’s akin to the Glomar Explorer, the very public “mining ship” that was actually funded by the CIA in the mid-1970s to secretly recover a Soviet submarine on the bottom of the ocean floor. The problem with this theory that it makes no sense, and the recent split with SpaceX is further proof of that.

If there really was an important national security requirement for such a launcher, would the Defense Department approve of this major setback in developing the launch vehicle? And considering that SpaceX desperately wants to be able to launch national security payloads, breaking the EELV monopoly, would SpaceX abandon this relationship and risk angering somebody they are trying to woo?

But the theory really made no sense for a pretty obvious reason: if the biggest airplane in the world took off with a rocket underneath and returned without that rocket, people would notice. It would not be “covert” at all. Instead, it would lead to much speculation about where the rocket had gone and what it had carried. The national security community could attract far less attention simply by launching on an EELV, like they already do.

Air launch is simply not an attractive way to launch satellites. If it was, we’d have more companies and countries developing this capability.

During the early 1960s the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office actually evaluated the possibilities of covert satellite launches. The earliest known scheme involved disguising a reconnaissance satellite as—no kidding—a test of an orbiting nuclear weapons platform launched atop an Atlas-Agena rocket. Details about this plan are scarce, but it seems rather odd to try and hide something secret behind the cloak of something that would have been dangerously provocative to the Soviet Union, and therefore would have attracted a lot of attention.

Declassified records indicate that by the mid-1960s the CIA considered several other options, including putting a satellite atop a Polaris missile launched via submarine, and dropping a rocket out of the back of a C-130 cargo plane. Instead of disguising the satellite, they sought to launch it out of sight. None of these options were pursued. The biggest problem was that none of the possible launch platforms could place a very large payload into orbit. Therefore, any “covert satellite” would be less capable than the conventional reconnaissance satellites then being launched every few weeks on Thor and Atlas, and later Titan, rockets. Instead of developing covert launch, the CIA and Air Force sought ways of rapidly launching existing satellites by reducing ground processing time. They also increased the responsiveness of satellites on orbit. But these satellites were still visible from the ground using conventional radar and optical systems.

By the 1970s the spooks looked at another option—if they could not pass the satellite off as something else, and if they could not hide the launch, maybe they could make at least some satellites invisible to observation. The first stealth satellite research started in the 1970s and got a boost during the Reagan era. The satellites are launched conventionally, but are not seen again by the amateur spy satellite trackers who search for them. They may be tracked by the Russians. Although little is known about them, we do know that they are rare, and apparently very expensive. They may also have other operational limitations that explain why most intelligence satellites are more conventional, and indeed, visible from the ground. There is no legitimate reason to build a giant, non-covert launch system, just to launch at most one or two stealthy satellites a decade.

In addition, there are the limitations of air launch itself. Air launch is simply not an attractive way to launch satellites. If it was, we’d have more companies and countries developing this capability. Out of dozens of rockets developed over sixty years of spaceflight, you can count the number of operational air-launched versions on a single hand with four fingers missing. Some of the problems are obvious, while other problems are less obvious. One former Air Force official has noted that an earlier, and now-canceled air launching project had an inherent flaw: after being dropped from its carrier aircraft and falling toward the Earth, the rocket engines had to cancel the backwards velocity before they could start providing forward velocity. The performance hit was so great that it was worse than firing the rocket from the ground. Has anybody made such a calculation for Stratolaunch?

It’s an egolauncher, and Allen will be able to turn to his rich friends who also have rockets and brag, “Mine’s bigger.”

So Paul Allen is building a big aircraft and a big rocket that seem incredibly cool, but also not very logical unless you’re a Bond villain. But there are different types of logic. This project is entirely logical if you accept that it is not about profits but ego. If you’re insanely rich, why shouldn’t you have very expensive toys? Other rich men have the world’s biggest private jets, or the world’s most expensive antique cars. What Paul Allen wants is the world’s biggest airplane that also happens to launch rockets. It is as logical as The Maltese Falcon. Outside observers are looking for market logic or technical logic when all that is required is understanding the human (well, male) ego.

Indeed, we should be used to this by now. After all, there’s a joke that the best way to make a small fortune in the space business is to start with a large fortune, and we already have several examples of rich tycoons spending a small (or even moderate) amount of their net worth on space business ventures. They claim that they are also pursuing markets, but it’s worth asking if those markets are real or merely justifications that they use with their wives to explain why they don’t simply have a model train set in the basement, like normal middle-aged men. Sometimes business acumen gives way to daydreams.

It seems likely that the odds are against Stratolaunch actually succeeding. But it will be fun to watch them try. It’s an egolauncher, and Allen will be able to turn to his rich friends who also have rockets and brag, “Mine’s bigger.”