Stratolaunch announced yesterday that following a 9 month courtship, it is entering into a development arrangement with Orbital Sciences Corporation to secure the booster for the behemoth, twin boomed aircraft currently being built by Scaled Composites at Mojave.
NBC News Science Editor Alan Boyle shed a little more light on the arrangement yesterday on his Cosmic Log site, based on an interview which Stratolaunch CEO Gary Wentz. According to Boyle, the OSC supplied launch vehicle will be a three stage rocket consisting of solid fueled first and second stages, topped (sort of, horizontally speaking) by a liquid fueled third stage, which would likely be required in any event to achieve precise orbital insertion. Intended payload capability is 13,500 lbs. into low Earth orbit with first launch date target of 2018.
While the announcement of a formal partnership with OSC hardly came as a surprise, for anyone hoping for a something a little more inspiring from an “innovative solution unlike anything tried before,” it may also be something of a disappointment. In announcing that it will stay on familiar turf and base its rocket on a solid fueled first and second stages, OSC and Stratolaunch seemed to have taken a very conservative approach, one which appears to close the door on any possibility that the final product will make a meaningful contribution to reducing launch costs and offering at least a path towards a reusable second stage like that already being taken by far more modest Swiss Space Systems and its SOAR space plane.
It seems a little incongruous to go to the trouble to build the world’s largest aircraft specifically as mobile launch platform, and then equip it with a conventional, dead-end solid rocket motor drawn from the legacy aerospace industry, presumably from regular OSC supplier ATK, with all the embedded costs which that involves. While perhaps there were no other realistic alternatives, one might have hoped that instead of resorting to a solid fueled architecture, OSC would have instead elected to build on its recent partnership with Antares first stage provider Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and explore the art of the possible in the light of what is currently taking place with Stratolaunch’s previous partner SpaceX.
While a solid fueled architecture will presumably facilitate the “any orbit, anytime, almost anywhere” goal established by Stratolaunch at a lower development cost than alternatives powered by potentially reusable liquid fueled engines, the tradeoff may not look so good over the long run. Given ongoing progress by SpaceX, underscored by a growing confidence in reusability which has found its way into the very name of its own new booster, Falcon 9-R(reusable), it seems quite possible that for an all new development effort with a 5 year time frame before first flight, there is already more business risk in assuming that SpaceX will fail, than in planning for the possibility that it will succeed.
Viewed from a more immediate perspective, it will be interesting to see if the Stratolaunch/OSC partnership can surpass the price point of its most immediate rival, the commercial Soyuz 2 launched by Arianespace out of French Guiana. With Soyuz pricing increasing dramatically in recent years, Stratolaunch’s Air Launch Vehicle may be in a position to deal Arianespace a commercial blow while neatly negating its equatorial advantage. It would represent a remarkable reversal of fortune for the European consortium which is currently enjoying a unprecented run of market dominance, even as it nervously ponders what do about Falcon Heavy.
One interesting sidebar is that as mentioned in a recent Space News article, XCOR President Jeff Greason told attendees at the Space Access ’13 conference that his company was looking into a two stage, reusable, liquid fueled orbital system based on an “existing aircraft.”