Reports that Stratolaunch was closing surfaced on the Reuters news website late Friday, May, 31, 2019. The company flew its first successful test flight of the massive Stratolaunch aircraft only weeks ago on Apr. 19, 2019. During the historic first flight, the aircraft flew for two and half hours, a distinctly better performance that Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules that only flew for 26 seconds at an altitude of 70 feet. The test pilot said “It handled really well, very stable. I’m very pleased with it.”
The Stratolaunch aircraft was intended to carry spacecraft to altitude where they would be dropped and then fly into orbit under their own power. While the approach to commercial space flight was novel, competition by other commercial, reusable spacecraft launch operations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX offer more conventional and likely more practical solutions to boost payloads into orbit.
Stratolaunch was founded in 2011 under parent corporation Vulcan, Inc. Both Paul Allen and CEO Jean Floyd ran the company until Allen’s death in October, 2018.
Journalist Joseph Trevithick reported for media outlet The War Zone that, “There had already been serious questions about Stratolaunch’s future after Allen’s death. In January 2019, the company publicly announced that it was canceling work on a family of space launch vehicles, including a reusable space plane known as Black Ice, as well as new rocket motors to power them.”
While there are similarities between the noteworthy single flights of both the Hughes H-4 Hercules and the Stratolaunch, the men behind the projects appear to be vastly different. Howard Hughes is remembered as a reclusive eccentric who likely suffered behavioral anomalies as a result of multiple injuries from plane crashes, including concussions. While Hughes set numerous aviation records and faced down massive legal challenges from government, commercial competitors and rivals in the entertainment industry, he is most commonly remembered for his declining years. Tabloid newspapers in the 1960’s and early 1970’s reported on his reclusive behavior and alleged fixation with being contaminated with “germs”. Hughes’ focus on privacy only fueled the public interest in his final decade.
By contrast, Paul Allen is remembered as a co-founder of Microsoft along with Bill Gates. His work in philanthropy and privately funded exploration remain a primary part of his legacy. Interestingly, Paul Allen was also involved in film production, but contrasting the popular entertainment themes of Howard Hughes’ film projects, Allen focused on films that showcased conservation and social issues, including his award-winning movie Where God Left his Shoes released in 2008.
If reports of Stratolaunch’s demise are accurate, the future of the historic aircraft may be in doubt. Aviation enthusiasts and history fans will likely hope for some type of a display built around Stratolaunch so that its bold spirit and innovative design remain as an inspiration for future generations