In Mojave, Calif., workers are cannibalizing a pair of surplus United Airlines Boeing 747-400 airliners for parts to build a flying launch pad.

In January their employer, Stratolaunch Systems, broke ground on an 88,000-sq.-ft. wing-fabrication facility that will be finished late this year. By mid-2013 it will be joined by a 92,640-sq.-ft. hangar to accommodate the largest aircraft ever built.

Funded by the deep pockets of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch paid about $22 million apiece for the two aircraft, part of an estimated $200 million down payment on the innovative launch concept. The company is negotiating with Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) for a scaled-down version of its Falcon 9.

“We're looking at the performance of a Falcon 5 versus a Falcon 7 right now,” says Gary L. Wentz, Jr., CEO and chairman of the startup “project” Allen kicked off late last year (AW&ST Dec. 19, 2011, p. 26). “A lot of it has to do with the payload and the loads we're expecting to see. We'll probably make that decision within the next two months.”

Stratolaunch's concept is one of several taking shape as the international launch industry adjusts to a world without space shuttles and a U.S. administration seeking private companies to deliver humans and their cargo to low Earth orbit.

Based in Huntsville, Ala., where NASA is managing in-house development of the congressionally mandated heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), Stratolaunch hopes to begin flying its launch-carrier aircraft—a 1.2-million-lb. behemoth with a 385-ft. wingspan—in the second half of 2015. The first test-firing of an air-dropped Falcon rocket should come by the end of 2016, Wentz says. The company's initial goal is to demonstrate that the concept—essentially an upsized version of the Allen-sponsored vehicles that won the Ansari X Prize—will work.

“We haven't done any real sales or marketing at Stratolaunch,” Wentz says. “Paul's philosophy is to basically prove the capability, and then go after payload customers. We'll probably initiate some of that within the next two years. We're focused primarily on developing the system, developing the components and integrating the system.”

Presently Stratolaunch has a staff of nine—typical, Wentz says, for an Allen startup at its present stage of activity. Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne, will work with BAE to build and outfit the carrier aircraft that will take the Falcon to its 30,000-35,000-ft. drop altitude. Also on the team is Dynetics, which is providing engineering support.

The Falcon that Stratolaunch selects will carry either five or seven of the new SpaceX Merlin 1D engines now in development test. Designed to generate 155,000 lb. vacuum thrust, with a 310-sec. specific impulse and a thrust- to-weight ratio of 160:1, the engine will power the Falcon 9s the company plans to use to fly cargo and crew to the International Space Station after the first three cargo flights, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

Beyond the engine itself, the company is looking for cost-saving upgrades that may include a flyback capability in at least the first stage, says Musk, offering the sort of vision that often leaves engineers from outside the company shaking their heads with skepticism (AW&ST March 12, p. 49).

“In some cases it will be a flyback to a land landing,” Musk says, explaining how cold-gas thrusters would turn the thrusting stage back toward its recovery area. That could be in the ocean, depending on the size of the payload, Musk says, but the idea is to cut costs even more than the low figures—averaging $55 million to put a 4.5-ton payload in orbit—on the company's website.

“None of our prices assume reusability,” he says. “We don't know when reusability will work, [or] which customers will sign up.”

Instead, the new version of the Falcon 9—which will include pressure-stabilized propellant tanks and a common bulkhead, made of friction stir-welded aluminum lithium for weight saving—will be 60% more capable than the current version with costs that are “more or less consistent” with it, Musk says.

Ultimately, he says, recovering the first and second stages with flyback could cut the company's prices by 20% to as much as 50% “if we start getting really high volume.”

“I think we'll end up pretty much taking over the whole launch industry, unless somebody comes along and offers [something better],” Musk says. “We're punching above the belt. We're not doing anything unfair or unreasonable. We are competing pretty hard.”

Musk's competitors are quick to point out that he hasn't flown to space since December 2010. But that was a landmark flight that made SpaceX the first private company to orbit and recover an intact spacecraft (AW&ST Dec. 13, 2010, p. 22). The company's upcoming cargo flight to the ISS will go a long way to quiet critics and reassure NASA and other customers—if it is successful. The history of space launch is littered with paper rockets, concept vehicles that never got off the ground or never reached full-up operations. Conestoga, Aquila, Roton, K-1 and Gryphon are among the also-rans of commercial spaceflight. Usually there wasn't enough money to keep them going long enough to iron out the inevitable technical problems and turn a profit.

That old equation has changed with the arrival of billionaires like Allen, Musk and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who is using some of his dot-com money to endow the secretive Blue Origin vertical-takeoff-and-landing space launch vehicles. The addition of serious U.S. government funding for commercial access to the ISS also has spurred companies that must answer to shareholders to enter the fray, sometimes with interesting ideas that at least hold the promise of moving beyond the paper stage.

One such idea is the Liberty rocket, a collaboration between ATK and Astrium that marries the solid-fuel first stage ATK developed for NASA's defunct Ares I crew launch vehicle with the Ariane 5 first stage, modified so its Vulcain 2 main engine can start at altitude.

The project didn't win any NASA seed money, but continued under an unfunded Space Act agreement. It remains a possible launch vehicle for Boeing's CST-100 commercial crew vehicle, and perhaps for other crew vehicles as well (see p. 40).

In the U.S., NASA is hard at work adapting 50 years worth of launch ground infrastructure for the new era. Instead of single-vehicle operations, Launch Complex 39 is being readied to handle everything from the government's Saturn V-class SLS to the whole range of new commercial vehicles.

Boeing already has a deal to use one of the Orbiter Processing Facilities at Kennedy Space Center for the CST-100 (AW&ST Nov. 7, 2011, p. 34), and the Liberty vehicle is another likely candidate to use surplus space shuttle facilities at KSC that were recycled from Apollo days.

“The way the pad is being designed is to be as standard and generic as possible,” says Scott Colloredo, chief architect in the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program at KSC.

Work on Pad 39B got underway as the final shuttle missions lifted off from Pad 39A, with modifications initially put in place to accommodate the Ares I. Since then Colloredo and his colleagues have been looking for ways to accommodate as many potential vehicles as possible.

That sort of flexibility poses a number of issues, since some launch vehicles are designed to stack vertically, and others to be assembled in the horizontal position. Planning work extends beyond the pads to the processing facilities and the huge Vehicle Assembly Building where Saturns and shuttles were stacked.

“We're looking at everything from spacecraft to horizontal launchers to medium to heavy-class vehicles, you name it,” says Colloredo. “We're trying to make sure that when we put them all together they're all able to function, and as much as possible function autonomously, where each one can get their mission done, and they're not compromising the mission of the other.”

Changes in the way humans and payloads get to orbit aren't limited to the U.S. As Europe ponders its next step in space launch (see p. 46), other international launch-vehicle work also could impact the changing launch-services industry worldwide, provided such thorny political issues as export control and non-proliferation can be resolved.

India's long-awaited all-domestic Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk. III) is slated for its first flight this year, which would allow the Indian Space Research Organization to launch its own heavy communications satellites, and perhaps sell launches to commercial customers as well (AW&ST April 2, p. 18).

China—only the third nation to orbit humans—is making steady progress on its Long March line of launchers with a new class built around the 260,000-lb.-thrust YF-100 kerosene-fueled rocket engines. Late next year the Long March 7, China's newest—and most capable—medium-class launch vehicle, should begin operations. Also in the works for launch late next year or early in 2014 is the smaller Long March 6.

Later in 2014 China hopes to send its first Long March 5 into space. Able to lift as much as 25 tons to low Earth orbit in its largest configuration, the Long March 5 will lift off with 10 engines firing at once—eight YF-100s in four strap-on boosters, and two gas-generator-cycle main-stage engines fueled by liquid hydrogen (AW&ST March 12, p. 32).