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Stratolaunch air-launch venture says it’s been transferred to new owners by Paul Allen’s Vulcan

Alan Boyle
Stratolaunch’s plane took its first test flight in April. (Scaled Composites Photo)

Stratolaunch, the company that was founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen in 2011 to build a flying launch pad for rockets, says it’s under new ownership.

The transition serves as the latest sign that Jody Allen — Paul Allen’s sister, who took control of his Vulcan Inc. holding company as the trustee and executor of his estate — is paring back and refocusing his many enterprises. Earlier this week, word spread that Vulcan was trimming a significant number of jobs.

Stratolaunch reported the ownership handover today on Twitter and its website, without saying who the new owner is. However, information gleaned from the grapevine at Mojave Air and Space Port, where Stratolaunch’s flight operations are based, suggests that private investors are playing a role.

Here’s Stratolaunch’s statement:

“Stratolaunch LLC has transitioned ownership and is continuing regular operations.  Our near-term launch vehicle development strategy focuses on providing customizable, reusable, and affordable rocket-powered testbed vehicles and associated flight services.  As we continue on our mission, Stratolaunch will bring the carrier aircraft test and operations program fully in-house.  We thank Vulcan Inc. and Scaled Composites for turning an ambitious idea into a flight-proven aircraft.”

In an email to GeekWire, Stratolaunch said it would not be granting interviews or sharing additional details at this time.

Stratolaunch owns the world’s biggest airplane, a twin-fuselage monster with a 385-foot wingspan, and sent it up into the sky from Mojave Air and Space Port for its first and only test flight in April. The plane, which was built for Stratolaunch by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, is designed to drop as many as three rockets for a mid-flight launch to orbit.

Paul Allen established Stratolaunch under Vulcan’s aegis as a follow-up to his support for the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, which made use of a similar air-launch concept for crewed suborbital spaceflight.

When the venture was founded, nearly eight years ago, Allen aimed to take advantage of a market for midsize satellite launches — and over time, Stratolaunch looked into other concepts, including a new type of rocket engine, hypersonic rocket planes and an air-launched orbital space plane.

But after Allen’s death last October, Stratolaunch’s workforce was dramatically scaled back. In recent weeks, the venture started posting key job openings again, and that now appears to be part of the plan for the ownership change.

Last month, Virgin Galactic test pilot Nicola Pecile spread the word that Stratolaunch would be ramping up again, and hinted at what was behind the ramp-up. Virgin Galactic is headquartered just down the street from Stratolaunch’s giant hangar.

“Looks like they found some investors,” Pecile reported in a Sept. 18 tweet. “Hiring of test pilots was just sent out to SETP [Society of Experimental Test Pilots] members the other day. I’m expecting a big announcement soon! Which is great, would have been too bad to not continuing with the test program…”

In the absence of other information, several factors suggest that Northrop Grumman may play a key role in the Stratolaunch transition. The company already has Scaled Composites as a subsidiary. It has long experience in air-launch systems by virtue of its acquisition of Orbital Sciences Corp. And according to Spaceflight Now, Northrop Grumman recently reacquired the Pegasus XL rockets it was assembling for Stratolaunch’s use.

We’ve reached out to Northrop Grumman for comment and will update this report with anything we can pass along.

During the buildup to April’s test flight, Stratolaunch said it aimed to get its carrier plane fully certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and ready for launch operations after 18 months to two years of flight tests. It’s not clear whether the venture would follow the same timeline under new ownership, and there’s even a chance that the new owners will pivot to a completely different business model.

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