By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
Three months after the death of Paul Allen, Stratolaunch, the space plane company he founded, said it will sharply cut back its ambitions, ending the development of a planned family of launch vehicles and a rocket engine and laying off most of its workforce.
However, the shrunken company still plans to fly the giant Stratolaunch plane that’s now undergoing high-speed taxi tests on the runway in Mojave.
The project, first announced in 2011, had been hugely expensive for the tech billionaire founder. Although the cost was never disclosed, it probably was at least a billion dollars.
With Allen gone, it makes sense for his estate to continue to fund the plane, which is close to first flight, to preserve that investment and attain his goal to have it fly.
But apparently there is no appetite to continue the spending at previous levels. Plans to expand the project, announced just last year, have been dropped.
The giant plane, featuring twin fuselages linked across the top by an immense wing, is designed to carry a rocket slung beneath it to be released at 35,000 feet and launched into space.
The original Stratolaunch plan was to use a 1990-era Pegasus rocket, since acquired by Northrop Grumman, to deliver satellites into orbit. Last August, the company announced a plan to develop its own family of other rocket launchers that could be slung under the Stratolaunch, including a fully reusable space plane.
And in September, Stratolaunch said it would also develop its own high-performing liquid fuel engine for those rockets.
Those plans are now abandoned.
“Stratolaunch is ending the development of their family of launch vehicles and rocket engine,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. “We are streamlining operations, focusing on the aircraft and our ability to support a demonstration launch of the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL air-launch vehicle.”
Geekwire reported Friday that with the cutbacks in these projects, the company laid off about 50 people, leaving only about 20 employees to continue work on the big plane and get flight tests started.
The business plan for Stratolaunch was always unclear. Friday’s scaling back of the project raises the question of whether it will continue after it flies for the first time.