In April 2019 the Stratolaunch Systems’ carrier aircraft, known as Roc, sat at the end of runway 30 at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. For months prior, the organization had teased the revolutionary aircraft’s eventual takeoff – running test after test yet keeping the vessel firmly on the ground. But on April 13, 2019, the world’s biggest-ever plane would try to take to the air for the very first time. And if this massive carrier aircraft managed to get off the ground, it would make history.
And as the craft gained speed down the runway, its wings stretched as wide as an American football field. For the plane’s maiden voyage to be a success, though, Roc – named after a humongous mythological eagle – would need at least 12,000 feet of tarmac to build up enough power to lift off.
Spectators and photographers gathered to watch as Roc made its way toward the end of the track and then lifted up into the sky. And as the plane left the ground, viewers got to take in a truly astounding sight. Yes, the largest aircraft in the world had just taken flight before their eyes, and it was certainly something to behold. But what would be the outcome of this historic takeoff?
But let’s backtrack – to the beginning, when this mammoth undertaking was a mere idea. So back in 2010, behind closed doors, the Stratolaunch Systems project started. And a year later, founding members Paul Allen – who also co-created Microsoft – and Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites issued a public announcement regarding their new venture. The duo, you see, strived to develop a new way of air-launching rockets into orbit.
That’s right: the Seattle-based Stratolaunch operation hoped to amass an array of components that would send a ship into orbit. The plan was actually to use an aircraft carrier to transport a launch vehicle to a high altitude – and then the launch vehicle would be blasted into space.
Allen and Rutan’s impressive rockets could also fly into space with cargo and without a crew on board. Moreover, by using a carrier aircraft to launch them mid-air, the pair would save on the amount of fuel that their rockets would need to fly into the solar system. And the Microsoft co-founder hoped that the twosome could bring satellites into space right away and – perhaps later – astronauts, too.
By the time that Allen and Rutan had officially announced Stratolaunch Systems, they had already begun designing the prototype that they’d one day fly and launch into space. And the partners had a powerful ally in their corner too: Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The firm had signed on to build the rocket that would launch from the Stratolaunch carrier plane.
Within a year, though, the Stratolaunch Systems and SpaceX partnership had ended. Yet Allen and Rutan’s project had only just begun. In order to make their vision a reality, then, they needed a place to build their vessels. And in 2013 they had a hangar measuring more than 92,000 square feet. This structure was situated at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.
With its hangar and facilities ready, Stratolaunch Systems had an ambitious goal. Namely, the company was keen on launching its carrier aircraft’s first test flight about two years later in 2015. But that feat would take significantly more time than initially thought. What’s more, the same delay went for the air-launch rocket – which was not predicted to journey into the air any sooner than 2019.
Even without a quick turnaround, mind you, Stratolaunch’s plans likely attracted significant interest for a multitude of reasons. For one thing, if the team completed their project successfully, then it’d be the first outfit to create a privately funded method of space transport.
On top of that achievement, Stratolaunch’s rockets would not be at the mercy of the elements. They could, in fact, launch in poor weather conditions. Not only that, but they could do so without the need for an actual launchpad. And this would untether space travel from designated sites – thus allowing for a far greater level of flexibility.
Of course, pushing the boundaries of innovation had arguably always been Allen’s modus operandi. The entrepreneur had left Washington State University, after all, to take a programming job in Boston. He had then persuaded his friend Bill Gates, whom he had known since they were both teenagers, to stop attending Harvard so that the two men could instead begin Microsoft.
And after Microsoft took off, Allen channeled his resulting $20.3 billion fortune in a multitude of different interests. He funneled funds into his real estate portfolio, too, as well as plenty of scientific research. The investor also owned Portland’s NBA team – the Trail Blazers – and the Seattle Seahawks, who play in the NFL. He and his sister, Jody, even branched out into the entertainment industry and executive produced television shows and movies.
According to The Washington Post, Allen also had a renowned preoccupation with smaller satellites and all that they could accomplish for mankind and Mother Nature. He noted their “capabilities… both for communications, where a lot of people are putting up constellations of satellites, and for monitoring the challenged health of the planet.”
Indeed, Allen shared his life-long love of space at the press conference during which he and Rutan shared their designs for Stratolaunch Systems. He said, “Growing up, America’s space program was the symbol of aspiration. For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible.”
Yet Allen’s foray into that starry realm would focus more on the transportation required to get there. And in 2014 Stratolaunch had shifted focus to complete its carrier aircraft – thereby giving less attention to the launch vehicle. The company therefore had to redirect its energies, since it had quite literally huge plans for the carrier project.
Before they wheeled out the physical carrier aircraft, Allen and Rutan shared its future specifications. They planned to build a plane with a whopping 385-foot wingspan, which could touch both end zones on an American football field. To that end, the wings would stretch 20 feet longer than those of the Saturn V – a rocket from NASA’s Apollo program used in the 1960s and ’70s.
With these measurements alone, the Stratolaunch Systems carrier aircraft would be the biggest aircraft to take off in history – if it could actually get off the ground. The vessel would weigh more than 1.2 million pounds when carrying the launch vehicle. And, as mentioned before, Roc would need about 12,000 feet of runway to build up the speed required to lift off.
To help the carrier aircraft in this feat, it would have a sextet of Pratt & Whitney jet engines. Stratolaunch Systems had sourced them from a pair of Boeing 747-400 planes that it had deconstructed for some parts. These bits and pieces consisted of the avionics, landing gear, flight decks and other reliable systems.
Stratolaunch Systems did this exercise to save money on development, since Boeing’s 747 had notable success with these materials. Yet in spite of the carrier aircraft’s massive size, all of its parts would help it to fly distances of up to approximately 1,380 miles to enact its staple air launch missions.
Even with its borrowed materials, though, the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft still had an individual design. Stunningly, the vessel required a staggering 28 wheels to move. It even boasted two separate cockpits; the right-hand one held the pilot and their crew, while the one on the left contained flying instrumentation.
In August 2015 Vulcan Aerospace’s then-president, Chuck Beames, shared the company’s progress in putting together the extra-large aircraft. He told SpaceFlight Insider, “In 2016, I think, we’ll have the aircraft flying. 80 percent is fabricated now… about 40 percent assembled. We should have final assembly done the end of this year [or] early next year.”
Completing the project, in reality, happened to take much longer than Beames or either of Stratolaunch Systems’ founders suspected it would. At any rate, in May 2017, the team took the carrier aircraft out of its hangar to begin ground testing the vessel. And at that particular time, they also had to push back their subsequent launch demonstration to 2019.
In the months that followed, the carrier aircraft began making its way through more and more tests. The assessment included taxiing trials, and the vehicle was increasing speed on the airstrip. In January 2019 the vessel hit another major milestone: after traveling at 127 miles per hour, its nose had finally begun to lift off of the ground.
With more and more carrier aircraft-related tests happening at Stratolaunch Systems, the media began to take notice. So individuals with cameras gathered at the Mojave Airport to catch a glimpse of the vessel just in case it did something spectacular. Then, on April 13, 2019, at 6:58 a.m., an unexpected event took place: the carrier aircraft tried to attempt an unannounced first flight. And Roc suddenly sped down the runway in a bid to take off.
Watching such a behemoth aircraft race to take off was “surprising,” according to aerospace photographer Jack Beyer. He told Space.com, “In a way, I expected it to take longer.” So, despite the plane’s nose starting to shift upward, and the vessel hovering over the ground, the landmark moments “felt anticlimactic” for Beyer.
But Beyer and the other spectators who had gathered then got to watch as Roc put on a stunning display. The world’s largest plane rose “effortlessly in the air,” the photographer described. And, to him, that feat was astonishing to behold – even though the vessel’s flight had just begun.
From there, the Stratolaunch Systems carrier aircraft went on a journey for two and a half hours – during which it soared to a peak altitude of 17,000 feet. The plane also registered 189 miles per hour at its fastest. And though that is impressive, the craft has actually been developed to ultimately fly higher than that. The pilots on board additionally assessed the vessel’s in-air handling and performance, presumably for further tweaks before its official launch and eventual use.
Test pilot Evan Thomas told Air & Space about his experience in Roc’s cockpit. “The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want the first flight to be. And for the most part, the airplane flew as predicted, which is again exactly what we want. We saw a few little things that were off nominal[ly], but really for a first flight, it was spot on,” he reported.
In the future, Roc – even at its massive size – should be able to reach 35,000 feet. At that height, the carrier aircraft would be able to do its intended job of launching rockets for their orbits into space. The rockets in question will supposedly be snugly sandwiched by the carrier aircraft’s pair of fuselages until it’s time for takeoff.
Furthermore, the associate administrator of NASA’s science directorate, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, noted the importance of such innovation via Twitter. After Roc took off, he wrote, “A historic milestone for the Stratolaunch team with this record-setting aircraft taking flight. This is about going to the edge of space and beyond!”
The Stratolaunch team likewise lauded the culmination of a years-long effort. In a missive, chief executive Jean Floyd commented, “What a fantastic first flight. Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems. We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team [and] today’s flight crew.”
One person notably absent from the Stratolaunch takeoff was Allen himself. The organization’s passionate co-founder had long struggled with cancer; he beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982. But he sadly received a second dose of bad news with a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in 2009. His doctors managed to keep him in remission until 2018, when the disease unfortunately came back.
At that time, Allen unfortunately had a recurrence of cancer, which led him to die of septic shock on October 15, 2018. To celebrate the 65-year-old’s legacy, however, a number of Seattle’s monuments – such as the Space Needle – along with multiple Microsoft buildings around the country, lit up in blue in order to honor his hard work and memory.
So, when the Stratolaunch mega-jet took off, Allen was not physically present, but he was nevertheless on people’s minds. His sister, Jody, divulged in a statement, “We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement. The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement, and we congratulate everyone involved.”
And yet, in spite of these plaudits and the carrier’s successful launch, the future of Allen’s passion project seemed precarious. Just a few months after the co-founder’s death – and a few months before the plane’s first flight – the company had allegedly let a considerable number of its staffers go and retained less than half of its workforce as a result. It simultaneously revealed that the company would no longer design its own rockets.
Following Roc’s flight, the Stratolaunch team simply released a statement about the momentous occasion. It didn’t answer incoming queries or share plans for the company’s future endeavors. Therefore, questions linger about what will happen – and whether Allen’s desire for space travel that is more financially feasible will ever become a reality through Stratolaunch.
Fortunately, plenty of other operations exist to foster cheaper and easier space exploration, both for scientists and civilians. Stratolaunch’s former partner SpaceX, for instance, has since designed lines of launch vehicles and spacecraft. It continues to work toward its goal of reaching and facilitating the habitation of Mars.
Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s space-exploration project, Virgin Galactic, has its sights set on transporting travelers into space. As of December 2018, one of the company’s vessels succeeded in getting 51.4 miles into the air. And this phenomenal distance is considered outer space by U.S. measures.
On top of these companies blessed by billionaire backing, many others have additionally thrown their hats into the space-industry ring. And as of January 2019 more than 400 space companies have formed. Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson told the Los Angeles Times, “[The billionaires] have seeded the industry, and the market has now come in and taken over.” In other words, the success of Stratolaunch’s first flight is just the beginning of a new era of exploration.