When Chuck Beames took over as president of Vulcan Aerospace and executive director of its Stratolaunch Systems venture two and a half years ago, the project’s biggest change since its unveiling in late 2011 was a change in its booster, from a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to an Orbital Sciences concept called Thunderbolt. The company was still focused on the medium-class launch market, such as payloads that once flew on the Delta 2, as well as human spaceflight.
Now, as the giant aircraft designed to carry that rocket approaches completion, Stratolaunch’s future looks quite different. The company has shelved Thunderbolt and is instead looking at a wide variety of undisclosed alternative boosters, with a particular focus on the growing small satellite market. The company has talked about multiple “partnerships” with launch vehicle developers, but has yet to announce any deals.
Stratolaunch has the advantage of a wealthy backer: Microsoft cofounder and billionaire Paul Allen, with whom Beames is on a first-name basis. But the pivot to the smallsat market brings with it risks, as it puts Stratolaunch into competition with a growing number of companies developing dedicated smallsat launch systems, some of which are set to begin flying within the next year. Stratolaunch, meanwhile, has been coy about its schedules, but with its aircraft still only three-quarters complete, and a long f light test program ahead of it, it will be some time before it’s ready to begin commercial flights.
Beames sat down with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust after a June 16 tour of Stratolaunch’s Mojave, California, hangar where the company’s giant airplane is being assembled.
With all of these smallsat launch vehicles under development, including both air and ground launch systems, what do you provide that would lead someone to choose your system over your competitors?
That’s a good question. I think that the answer is going to be the nature of our operations: having a large aircraft means we will be able to service not only the higher end — although not like the Falcon 9 sort of heavy lift — but also support customers all the way to the low end. I think that focusing on the customer needs, tailoring the launch to exactly what they need both in terms of capacity and timing, are important parts of the value equation that companies have when they’re looking at space access.
Will you be competitive in price?
It’s easy to ask about a price comparison. But I know from the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with potential customers and existing people that need launch that a big part of it is just not waiting. A big part of this is to focus around not just one user need, but a whole breadth of both current and future needs.
I agree that there are a lot of folks in the launch business right now. But that makes for an exciting time. A logical fallacy that a lot of people fall into is that there’s only going to be one winner in the end, and I don’t think that’s the case. A lot of it is going to depend on where the satellite operator market goes and what kinds of ideas are created to make things more useful for people on Earth. It’s an exciting time and it’s very dynamic.
You’ve talked about looking at dozens of different launch vehicle configurations and the potential for multiple partnerships. So will customers go to you, or will they contract with those launch vehicle developers who then work with you?
They would come to us. We will have to sort that out, but our aim is to be a space access company, so we want to provide a simplified solution, a simplified answer to their access needs. But we’re open to other possibilities as well. If one of our partners were to bring an opportunity into the mix, then that would probably be a different arrangement.
So you would select the launch vehicle from among your partners based on what that customer’s requirements were?
Exactly. Their needs, availability, all that.
This one-of-its-kind aircraft is about three quarters complete. What particular challenges did you encounter in that process that you either hadn’t anticipated or were bigger than you expected?
I think the biggest thing is actually the biggest thing: it’s the size of the aircraft. The folks here thought long and hard about how to do that, but it turned out to be even more challenging than they anticipated. Scaled Composites has a long heritage of being very innovative, so they were very adaptive to challenges along the way.
An example is the manufacturing of the long carbon composite wing spars. Obviously it would be silly and kind of a waste of money to construct ovens to bake those 250-foot-long wing spars, the four of them. So what they did is come up with the idea of mobile oven: basically, build an oven around the wing spar and move it along and bake it. I thought that was just a brilliant idea.
So for all these kinds of things, the common denominator is just building an aircraft of this magnitude. It required innovation and thinking that Scaled certainly delivered on. A lot of those were challenges that we knew were there, but even so, we had to stare them in the face.
In an interview last year, you were talking about rolling out the aircraft in the first part of this year and beginning flight tests around the middle of the year. The aircraft is clearly still under construction. What schedule issues do you have?
This is one piece of an overall launch capability. While this piece, the aircraft, we would love to be done today, it’s important that we get it right. It’s important that we have the right discipline throughout with inspections, double-checking especially some of the absolutely critical aspects of the fabrication. And so, I think it’s been worth the redoubling of attention to detail and all that to make sure we’re getting this thing right.
In terms of the overall plan, we’re on track, because this is a launch system, a space access system, and the aircraft is an important part of it. And the size actually is a great thing, because that gives us the f lexibility to address a very dynamic, emerging market, everything from the very small to very large size. The important thing is to build the aircraft and build it right, and make sure it’s safe for everybody.
Are you going out and marketing this vehicle to potential customers now?
We are actively. We have partners, and we are actively seeking new partners. When I say partner, I don’t mean just launch vehicle, but all the different components of the overall system. Because what we want to be able to deliver is a very tailored access to space. Whatever the customer needs.
I think we will be the most responsive from the standpoint of the end customer. There will be no more waiting years to test out a prototype system. There will be no more of the kinds of things that have frankly killed ideas before they were able to get off the ground.
If a customer approached you and said, “We’re planning a satellite constellation, what kind of launch can you offer us?”, can you offer them something now?
We say we’re very interested in being their provider. Under a non-disclosure agreement — we don’t get into any kind of detailed conversation without such an agreement signed — we do talk about schedule and we give them what our best estimate is today for a commercial service: that is, done through all of our testing. And I feel very confident that we have healthy margins built into Paul’s original goal of by the end of the decade. Healthy, healthy margins.
I went back to the original 2011 Stratolaunch press conference talking about that. Obviously, that involved a different launch vehicle and a different team, but they were talking about actually starting launches in 2016.
Oh, were they really? I wasn’t there then.
This program has gone through a lot of changes, and I think people are trying to get a handle on them as you complete assembly of the airplane. When does the rest of the system come together?
It’s a logical question to ask, and partnerships are a logical question to ask. But the way we’re structuring things going forward is that these are partnerships, they’re two-way streets. We don’t make an announcement when Vulcan wants to make an announcement. We’re going to make those announcements when both sides of the agreement are ready. I use the term partnership to mean really a partnership, and not just a supplier. A partnership implies that both sides of that partnership have skin in the game. That’s an important dynamic in this.
Did you consider bringing development of the launch vehicle in house?
We did. When I talk about the 70 different variations of the vehicle, that was a lengthy conversation that we had internally with my team, and I had a long conversation with Paul about that. That was a critical decision, actually, and it had to do with the fact that there’s a lot of infrastructure already out there. Is it a smart use of capital to build out an infrastructure for more rockets? We decided that wasn’t the smart way to go.
That use of partnerships stands in contrast to the vertical integration employed by companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
Part of that is because we can. Because we’re not reliant on other investors, we can choose a business model that suits both us and our partners in a way that our value equation is not going to be to beat lower prices out of suppliers or bring it in house.
We’re vertically integrated in a different sort of way. Vulcan is an investment house, too. And a key part of that is if you think vertically not just from a launch system perspective but vertically from an entire space capability. It’s about the whole value chain, including companies like Spacef light and BlackSky, where it’s about sound business principles and business rigor, engineering rigor, and all of that kind of stuff. So we are investing in promising companies across all different aspects of the space business.
A couple of years ago you talked about working with Sierra Nevada Corp. on a version of its Dream Chaser that could fly on one variant of the Stratolaunch system. Is that still a possibility down the road?
We’re really focusing on the commercial launch business. We still have a back-burner interest in human spaceflight, but with Sierra Nevada not winning commercial crew, that makes that option less attractive unless they were able to somehow get that back from NASA or something. The design certainly closed, but with Sierra Nevada losing that round of the competition on commercial crew, we just didn’t think that was prudent.