A test flight of the Stratolaunch platform took off from Mojave Spaceport today, putting the space startup one step closer to delivering a unique pathway for satellites to reach orbit.
Stratolaunch is among the quieter of the recent space startups, so its launch today came as a pleasant surprise. Clouds have hung over the firm’s future following the death of founder Paul Allen and its cancellation of its own second stage rocket platform.
What Stratolaunch offers now is not strictly new – it’s the same Pegasus 30XL rocket that can be fired off by Northrop Grumman itself off its aging L1011. However, the platform was designed to accommodate larger rockets, which still provides an interesting opportunity for other firms to make a match. Stratolaunch’s niche right now is in having the world’s largest vehicle dedicated to skipping the first stage of a rocket, which can multiply the effectiveness of platforms that are otherwise unremarkable.
Outfits like Virgin Orbit offer essentially the same concept, but unlike Stratolaunch, which offers just the first stage, Virgin Orbit handles the full stack with its own 747 air stage and LauncherOne orbital rocket. Whether the business locus will continue to be “buying a launch” from a service provider, or if a diversified market of piecemeal services will arise, depends entirely upon the willingness of aviation first stage firms like Stratolaunch to open their platform to a broader range of launch options — and for other rocket companies to make a serious effort to solve air-launch problems.