Update: Vulcan Aerospace / Stratolaunch
At the 2015 Space Symposium held in Colorado Springs, Colorado an announcement was made that Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has launched a new company, Vulcan Aerospace. SpaceFlight Insider had the opportunity to sit down, one on one, with Charles “Chuck” Beames, president of Vulcan Aerospace, to discuss the company and its plans for the future.
Beames explained that “[Allen’s] always been interested in space stuff. He grew up at a time when the space programs were very much in the national media. In fact, he largely got interested in computers, and software, as a result of watching the space programs in the 60’s.”
Allen was a partner, and primary financial backer, in Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company responsible for the SpaceShipOne project – the first privately funded, crewed, flight to space and winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Allen also founded Stratolaunch Systems in 2011, a company focused on building the world’s largest aircraft, using six Boeing 747 engines, to “air-launch” payloads to orbit.
So why Vulcan Aerospace?
“The barrier to entry, to use the economic term, is the cost to access space, and it’s also the convenience factor, or the fact that it’s very inconvenient,” explained Beames. “[Allen] became very interested in breaking down those barriers . . . . akin to the personal computer industry [in the 70’s].” Vulcan Aerospace was established to “foster an environment to encourage the entrepreneurial class . . . . to be ambitious” and attempt to break down those barriers.
Beames stated that Stratolaunch is now being managed under the purview of Vulcan Aerospace, but Vulcan is also looking toward investments in “NewSpace,” in key technologies to allow access to space, and possibly in non-profit STEM outreach.
Ultimately, Beames explained, Vulcan’s goal is “airport style operations for access to space.”
Toward the end of our conversation, we asked Beames to provide an update on the Stratolaunch project – specifically we enquired as to the status of the carrier aircraft construction and when it was first expected to take to the air.
“In ‘16, I think, we’ll have the aircraft flying . . . . 80% [of the aircraft is] fabricated now . . . . about 40 percent assembled . . . . we should have final assembly done the end of this year, early next year, then we’ll do low speed and high speed taxiing . . . . and initial envelope testing of the aircraft,” said Beames. “For the next few years, we’ll do all of our test flights out of Mojave . . . . There’s already an air corridor that’s established by the Air Force for this kind of stuff anyway, and we’ll fly out over the Pacific.”
Beames went on to explain that the carrier aircraft is “the first one, so we’re going to be pretty cautious at first . . . . and it’s the largest ever built, we’re talking a football field, plus endzones, in wingspan.”
SpaceFlight Insider also inquired as to Stratolaunch’s former partnership with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and which vehicles it intends to launch from the carrier aircraft.
“SpaceX was a partner, and like a lot of partnerships, it was just determined that it was best we went our separate ways – different ambitions. We were interested in their engines, but Elon and his team, they’re about going to Mars, and we’re just in a different place, and so I think it was a parting of the ways that was amicable,” said Beames. “We are in the process of looking at multiple launch vehicles, and possibly even offering our aircraft, as purely as a mobile range for people.”
Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.