Stratolaunch aircraft aims to redefine satellite launches

In the grand scheme of things, the Stratolaunch plane only made one lap of the block with its initial test flight. But that doesn’t mean the first wheels up and first wheels down on the world’s largest aircraft should be minimized. Pretty much everything Stratolaunch does is historic.

With the aircraft successfully launching into the skies of California this month for a short flight and then landing at Mojave Air and Spaceport, the test set the stage for many odds-defying, gravity-beating journeys. to low Earth orbit so that stratolaunch can serve as a gigantic taxi and launch pad for satellite-carrying rockets.

In addition, Stratolaunch’s first air cruise leveraged the years of work of the many Scale composites engineers and manufacturers who designed and built the aircraft. “There were only a few of us in the cockpit, but it seemed like everyone who built the plane was with us on this flight,” the Stratolaunch pilot said. [insert name]. “It’s been a long labor of love to build Stratolaunch, and this successful test flight has reassured us that we’re all on the right track as we continue to prepare for real missions ahead.”

More test flights are on the horizon, but for now the people whose ingenuity and physical labor have slowly transformed the once empty void of Scaled Composites’ nearly 100,000 square foot hangar into a crowded workspace as they built Stratolaunch can rejoice, knowing they’re rewriting the first chapter of the private space travel movement.

A plane like no other

Stratolaunch Systems has chosen Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrup Grumman, to build the aircraft in 2011. On most projects, the company typically separates a dozen engineers and twenty or so makers into small teams to spur creativity and engender camaraderie. However, the sheer size of the Stratolaunch aircraft first gave Scaled employees pause when they first came up with a design and build plan. Stratolaunch is, after all, the largest aircraft ever built. But Scaled employees finally decided to work the way they always have. Despite the complexity of the project, Scaled still deployed small groups to assemble the aircraft.

Each major component of the aircraft had its own engineering and manufacturing program. Although up to 50 engineers and 200 manufacturers worked on the project, the use of small groups allowed every employee to be directly involved in the creation of an aircraft component. One group built the fuselage, another shaped the tail, while another built the cockpit. With a span of 385 feet, 15 feet longer than two leaning towers of Pisa placed end to end, the Stratolaunch wing had to be built by two teams.

Stratolaunch has six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines – the type used on 747 aircraft – which produce over 300,000 pounds of thrust. It weighs about 500,000 pounds without cargo or fuel and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds. Although amazing to watch, the pilots had to put aside any thoughts of Stratolaunch’s place in the Guinness Book of World Records while in the cockpit and instead focus on flying.

“It is certainly a unique aircraft, but we treated the flight as we would any other flight on a smaller aircraft,” [insert last name] said. “You just take it one step at a time and focus on the instruments and the flight path, knowing that a smart, dedicated team at Scaled Composites built Stratolaunch and are on the ground supporting us.”

Small steps on the first test flight

During the Stratolaunch test flight, the pilots had a checklist of test points. For example, they wanted to see how the plane reacted to the touch of certain controls. They also wanted to know how it maneuvered around corners.

But the goal of any initial test flight is to make sure the plane can take off and land. All intermediate actions, although important, are only bonus points. For this first test, the pilots did not retract the Stratolaunch gear to keep the flight as simple as possible. They will retract the gear and perform more difficult tasks in future test flights that are expected to last two years.

“It was only a short flight, but everything went well. It helped us understand how the plane flies and what to expect next time,” [insert last name] said. “We’re just going to continue to build on those tests and slowly but surely see the full extent of his capabilities.”

Work to write more history

If all goes according to the flight plan, Stratolaunch will one day launch rockets at around 35,000 feet, where the rockets will free-fall for a few moments before firing their own engines to carry their satellite payloads into low Earth orbit.

Dropping satellite-carrying rockets from high altitude saves fuel and eliminates the need for an expensive first-stage rocket. And the conventional plane take-off and landing routine has the potential to allow Stratolaunch to outperform its satellite-launching competitors – which include SpaceX and Virgin Orbit, as well as companies in China, India and Russia – in carrying rockets. close to space daily. base.

“When we landed, we realized that we were just a part of aviation and aerospace history,” [insert last name] said. “It’s an incredible feeling, but it’s only a small part of the story. We intend to complete the larger mission of sending these rockets into space and write an even bigger chapter in history.

Be part of the new generation of talented engineers at Northrop Grumman working on projects like the Stratolaunch.

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