Close to completing a year of its first and only flight, the massive ROC aircraft, with its six turbofan engines hanging from its wings with 385 feet span, is preparing to return to the skies. Stratolaunch, a company founded by Bill Gates’ former partner at Microsoft, Paul G. Allen, predicts that the two-fuselage aircraft will resume its flight test program in September.
For this to happen, the company installed at Mojave Airport in California has hired employees since the end of 2019 and now employs 115 people, not counting the 18 vacancies for engineers and flight operators that are on its website.
It’s a completely different picture from months ago, when its bankruptcy was taken for granted. After Allen’s death in October 2018, however, Stratolaunch went into a spiral of problems. At the end of that year, the company announced that it would no longer launch a family of rocket launchers and spacecraft, all of which were scheduled to be aired by the “ROC”.
In the face of a lack of resources, the company invested what it can to make the six-engine jet fly, a way of fulfilling Allen’s dream, which became reality on April 13, 2019.
At that time, Stratolaunch had already laid off several employees and started the process of suspending the program. In June, the first rumors of its probable closure emerged if it did not find an investor.
Four months later, in October, Vulcan, Allen’s company, announced the sale of Stratolaunch to an undisclosed buyer. Since then, the hangar in the Mojave Desert has come back to life.
Although it has not yet been confirmed, the new owner of Stratolaunch would be Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity fund, which does business in several sectors.
Under the new administration, Stratolaunch, however, changed its mission: now the ROC will be used as a platform for hypersonic test vehicles and no longer for rocket launches into orbit. “We considered ourselves a space launch company under the previous Stratolaunch,” said Vice President for government relations and business development, Mark Bitterman. “We are something very different now.”
The change would have occurred due to the great competition in private space programs with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Orbit. On the other hand, hypersonic flight technology has evolved and will need platforms to evaluate prototypes in the near future.
To prepare for this new phase, Stratolaunch intends to carry out at least one certification flight per month to obtain authorization from the FAA to offer its services in 2021. Fortunately, the giant plane will soon be seen in the skies again.