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The World's Biggest Airplane Has a New Owner

By Rich Smith - Jan 25, 2020 at 8:46AM

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Stratolaunch was dead -- but it got better.

The past couple of years have been rough for Stratolaunch, the pioneering space launch company founded by Microsoft magnate Paul Allen.

From its inception, Stratolaunch planned to lower the cost of access to space by developing a "Roc" superplane of gigantic proportions -- at 50 feet tall, 238 feet long, and massing 250 tons, it's by some measures the largest aircraft in the world -- and launching rockets from it into space, while airborne. But in 2018 and 2019, this dream came close to dying. 

In 2018 Allen passed away, leaving Stratolaunch rudderless. A few months later, Stratolaunch itself seemed at death's door, laying off three-quarters of its workforce and "ending the development" of the family of space rockets that would carry satellites into orbit. By June (2019), Reuters was reporting that management was ready to give up the ghost entirely, sell off the Roc to another owner, and close down operations at Stratolaunch for good.

But then a miracle happened.

Stratolaunch's Roc superplane emerging from a hangar

Stratolaunch's Roc superplane -- no longer for sale. Image source: Stratolaunch.

Stratolaunch finds a buyer

Near the same time the Reuters report came out, rumors began flying that Stratolaunch was looking to sell itself off in pieces, possibly preparing to be dissolved. Northrop Grumman, which in Stratolaunch's final days had agreed to sell the company its own "Pegasus" rockets to replace the rockets Stratolaunch was no longer developing, apparently bought those rockets back. CNBC reported Stratolaunch was also seeking a buyer for its Roc superplane.

Then out of the blue came the tweet that changed everything:

All of a sudden, Stratolaunch was not dead (nor dying). The monstrous Roc, rather than launching rockets into orbit, would be repurposed to offer "flight services" to other companies, carrying hypersonic "testbed vehicles" to altitude and launching them for test flights midair -- and it would remain with Stratolaunch. Stratolaunch itself, however, would have a new owner.

The only question was who.

Stratolaunch's buyer -- revealed

GeekWire got the scoop on the answer to that question last month, obtaining "business filings" from California and Washington state that showed Stratolaunch's new owner is none other than private equity powerhouse Cerberus Capital Management -- the same company that owns defense contractor DynCorp and rifle-makers Remington and Bushmaster.

With Cerberus's support, Stratolaunch appears to have received a lifeline -- and a surge of new cash to deploy. In a December tweet, Stratolaunch's CEO Jean Floyd boasted that the company is even on a hiring spree, adding 74 new employees in the final months of 2019 and aiming to become "the world's leading provider of high-speed flight test services" in 2020. 

The timing for this couldn't be better.

On the one hand, yes, Stratolaunch's temporary shutdown hobbled its ability to race other providers of small satellite launch services into orbit. But then again, that particular market is already getting crowded, and I'm not at all certain Stratolaunch could have survived competition with rivals like Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab -- and SpaceX! Rather than try out that thesis, though, Stratolaunch is exiting this market stage left, and leaving its rivals to battle for space market share without it.

For its part, Stratolaunch will change course and refocus its efforts on the nascent -- and well-funded -- market for hypersonic missiles and the hypersonic aircraft that carry them. Eager to explore these possibilities, the Pentagon has already begun awarding contracts worth billions of dollars to hypersonics leader Lockheed Martin, even as other companies (Boeing, for example) spend millions of dollars of their own money playing catch-up. As ever more defense contracting giants (like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon) join in this race, the demand for companies able to give competitors' an edge should only increase.

Stratolaunch, with its world's-biggest-airplane, looks perfectly positioned to meet this demand. Its uber-large Roc is capable of carrying a wide variety of payload configurations to accommodate different hypersonic vehicle designs that manufacturers might want to try. Between the airplane's twin fuselages, there's room to carry test vehicles with wingspans up to 90 feet. To put that in context, Lockheed Martin's famed SR-71 Blackbird supersonic spyplane had a wingspan of only 56 feet.

For that matter, Stratolaunch has apparently been working on designing hypersonic vehicles of its own (designated Hyper-A and Hyper-Z, according to a report on thedrive.com). As such, the company presumably can provide insight to potential partners to advance their own goals of developing new hypersonic aircraft. Or Stratolaunch could offer its services to the U.S. Air Force directly, and become a developer of hypersonic craft itself.

Whichever way the company ultimately goes from here, it looks like Stratolaunch has exited the market for space launch at just the right time ... and secured for itself a new lease on life as a player in the burgeoning defense market for hypersonics.

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