Paul Allen’s space plane prepares for its coming out party

SEATTLE — Stratolaunch, the space startup established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, is banking on this year being a milestone in achieving its vision of the leading launch company for those who want to get to space at lower costs to help solve problems here on earth.

“Paul is very interested in the small sat community, the entrepreneurs, the folks who are trying to invent new things and actually help us solve world problems,” says CEO Jean Floyd. “So we start there and try to help that community first.”

Stratolaunch is eyeing a host of small satellite developers to hitch a ride into orbit on the world’s largest airplane, which it is designing to launch satellites into orbit via a rocket tucked under the wings. The company plans to flight test the all-composite aircraft, which will rely on six Boeing 747 engines for the first time later this year, according to Floyd.

But already the company is collecting letters of intent from companies interested in launching satellites at lower cost and with more flexibility than traditional space rockets.

“The ride share is getting very difficult for small sats, so they’re looking for something a little faster, a little more flexible and cheaper than a ride share, where you have to get in line and wait,” he said.

Floyd spoke to POLITICO Space at the company’s headquarters about Stratolaunch’s to-do list before the first flight and how it is navigating federal regulations.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This is a big year with the planned first flight of the this summer.

2018 is the big year for Stratolaunch, it’ll be the year we fly the world’s biggest aircraft. We’re getting very close.

In order to hit first flight, there are certain taxi tests that you need to go through and tests leading up to first flight. We had scheduled five taxi tests leading up to first flight. We’ve done two of them. We have three more to do. So we’re not ready to talk about exactly when we’re going to do first flight, but it’s very soon, it’s later this year, this summer.

The only reason we’re doing that is because as you go through these taxi tests, you may find some things you need to go back and fix, so I’d hate to get a date out there that is misleading. It’ll be a big deal…We’re going to have a ceremony and reveal, we’ll build up to it, it won’t be a surprise. It won’t sneak up on you.

It has to go over 100 knots, and we’ve only hit about 30 knots so far, so it’s got to go four times faster than we’ve gone in the past to get to takeoff speeds.

This is a very different platform than a traditionally launched rocket. How does the licensing process work?

You need an experimental license from the FAA. Scaled Composites as our subcontractor is obligated to go get that. They’re accustomed to doing that, they’ve been doing it for years, so it’s not a big issue for them.

Then you have to have a launch license, and that’s not needed until you actually have a launch vehicle you’re going to launch from the aircraft. That’s going to be 18 to 24 months after first flight. So we have started that process, but it’s still early in that cycle to get a launch license. So when you go out and actually do the launch, you have to have an experimental license for the plane and you have to have a launch license to actually conduct a launch.

Are there any parts of this regulatory process you would like to see simplified?

We would like to have one FAA we go to as opposed to two. We have to go to [Aviation Safety] for the aircraft and we have to go to [Space Transportation] for the commercial license, it’d be nice if we just dealt with one. And they’re two totally separate organizations even though they’re both under the FAA moniker. So if there is some way to combine that and make it a little bit more efficient for us, we would appreciate that. But otherwise we don’t have a whole lot of input. It’s a pretty straightforward process.

There are some things FAA could do to be more efficient, but I wouldn’t say it’s broken. We can all do things that can improve efficiency across the board, but we enjoy working with them.

Any other big milestones coming up over the next year?

At the first flight event, we are going to talk a little bit about what is our suite of product offerings in terms of launch vehicles. We haven’t really talked much about that up until this point, but once we get the plane flying, we want to reveal to everyone exactly what we’re talking about. We have talked about the Pegasus system [from Orbital ATK] and we are going to launch the Pegasus on our first launch. It’s a very small rocket, but it’s a very good rocket, very reliable, which is one of the reasons we want to launch that first.

But it’s a 50,000 pound rocket. This plane can carry 550,000 pounds, so it’s an undersized rocket for the capabilities we’re talking about.

What size runway does the plane need? Is that a limiting factor?

There are many runways. Think about almost every Air Force base you could use, most international airports you could use. Then you have the East Coast shuttle landing facility and the West Coast shuttle landing facility. You have Puerto Rico, which we could use if we want to go equatorial. We could use Hawaii. Almost any airport that can accommodate a 747 can accommodate this.

The issue is the stance of the vehicle, the width, not the runway length. More importantly, we have to be careful with the width of the taxiway. Taxiways aren’t normally wide enough to accommodate a 100-foot width. So we could use lots of airports, but we may not be able to taxi off the airport.

Have you talked with the Defense Department about being a potential customer?

We’ve talked to several DoD organizations and they’re all very interested, they think it’s a fantastic capability, but right now we have the world largest airplane sitting in a hangar — it hasn’t done anything yet. So I think once we fly and once we demonstrate the capability, it’ll get a lot more interest.

Any other potential customers or early interest?

We are talking to all the small sat customers throughout industry and we are collecting letters of interest…they see the benefits of it, especially let’s say small sats that need to launch from the equator, they really like this capability because we can take them where they need to go.

Also the ride share is getting very difficult for small sats, so they’re looking for something a little faster, a little more flexible and cheaper than a ride share, where you have to get in line and wait and you don’t always get the ride you want and you don’t always go to the exact orbit you want. This way, we can do that for them.

Why are you initially focusing on the small sat companies as customers?

Small sat is an up and coming, there’s lots of customers who need that. They’re usually start up companies, a lot of entrepreneurial companies, they don’t have a lot of capital and they’re looking for low cost. So low cost is king in terms of small sats and we think we have an offering that can make a difference to the small sat community.

And Paul is very interested in the small sat community, the entrepreneurs, the folks who are trying to invent new things and actually help us solve world problems, so we start there and try to help that community first.

Could this approach ever replace traditional launch capabilities?

It’ll always exist in conjunction with traditional launch because the limiting factor for an airplane is how much it can lift. So the most this can ever lift is a 550,000 pound launch vehicle, which at the limit is just over a 10,000-pound payload. That’s as high as it’s ever going to be able to go, so there are limitations to it. So you’re still going to have to have the classic launch site scenarios.

The whole theory behind doing air-launched is we want to make it easier for customers to get into space. We think it’s way too hard. Paul Allen thinks ‘space is hard’ is a paradigm that needs to be shattered. One way we think we can do that is to combine the convenience of airport -style operations with the launch industry.

We want to make it more like scheduling a flight. We’d make it convenient, we’d make it reliable in the sense that it’s schedule reliable. When we say we’re going to launch you at a certain time, it’s going to be there just like your flight will be there. And make it routine, something you can count on.

In fact, we’re thinking of setting up operations where you would have a launch at a certain time and a certain day routinely and you would promote that and get small sats to come in and start filling up that rocket with them knowing it’s going to happen on a certain day.

We want to get to a point where you pick up your phone and you pick a seat, if you will, on the launch vehicle.

What does your D.C. lobbying operation look like?

Right now we have a couple of people in D.C. who are stationed there full time…right now, it’s really more about awareness, like what is this large aircraft and what does it do? And how can it help the United States? We lean on Paul Allen and the Vulcan company a little bit, they have lobbyists, and we used them a little bit.

We’re not pushing on any big policy changes or zeroing in anything like that, because a lot of people don’t know about the plane. That’s just Paul, he’s going to go do it and talk about it after he’s done it. But now that we’re approaching first flight of the world’s largest plane, it’s probably not to our benefit to keep it too quiet.

What has been the reaction so far from Congress?

I think they’re very excited. They see this as a totally different capability from what’s being offered by the other aerospace industry partners and they see a little bit of it in Virgin Orbit, a similar product, and they think it can bring something to the U.S. that we don’t have right now. They love the flexibility of it, they love it can literally go anywhere any time across the globe.

Vice President Mike Pence visited Mojave Air & Space Port where the plane is being built in October. What was his reaction?

Our message to him was…this is a capability that doesn’t exist right now. It can be very responsive, very resilient…We’re specifically looking at the customers who need this and what is it that’s driving them crazy, what is it that keeps them from generating revenue and helping to solve world problems. We’re asking them specifically what can we do to solve those?

For example, one of them is, once you decide you want to launch and you go out to procure a launch vehicle, it takes two years minimum. It takes two years to get on a flight.

So the first thing we’re going to look at is how do we turn that down to something a lot more reasonable, which to us is less than a year.

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