Stratolaunch, SpaceX Part Ways

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Stratolaunch Systems, which plans to launch satellites from an enormous airplane high in the atmosphere, has parted with its rocket subcontractor SpaceX, but Stratolaunch says it's still hoping to fly the airplane in 2016. Stratolaunch has hired Orbital Sciences Corporation to come up with a new design by sometime in the spring of 2013. The launch system, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was announced a year ago to mark what Allen said was "the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry." The carbon-fiber aircraft, designed by Burt Rutan, will have a 385-foot wing joining two fuselages and a carrier mechanism in the middle. The rocket booster was to have been an adaptation of SpaceX's pad-launch rocket but that turned out to be too much of an engineering stretch.

It turns out the rocket needed by Stratolaunch would require some significant design changes (including a fin/chine) to the SpaceX rocket currently in production and SpaceX doesn't want the diversion from its goal to enter the commercial space business as an orbital launch contractor. "Over the past few months, as our teams got further into the design of the new rocket, it was clear that it would be a significant departure from SpaceX's Falcon 9 manufacturing process and its overall business plan and goals," Stratolaunch said in a statement. "Building the Stratolaunch rocket would require SpaceX to significantly modify its processes, which both companies agreed would not be beneficial to the project." A few days after the announcement, SpaceX announced it had won two military launch contracts.