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The private equity firm that founded Paul Allen’s dream

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The Plains View

Stratolaunch was based on a dream. Paul Allen, the unspeakably rich co-founder of Microsoft, grew up in the realm of space exploration, devouring books like the visionary rockets of science writer Willy Ley. In the early 2000s, Allen funded a project known as Spaceship One, which captured the X Prize as the first private enterprise to send one into space. He later licensed the technology to Virgin Galactic, which built its own carrier vehicle to steer Richard Branson into sub-orbital ecstasy. Meanwhile, Allen, frustrated with what he saw as NASA’s timidity, decided to go back into the space industry. He retained legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan to design a giant carrier that could launch satellites and other spacecraft out of the sky. With its twin hulls and 385-foot wingspan, the Stratolaunch aircraft, later renamed Roc, was a breathtaking spectacle in itself, doubly so because of its mission to lift its cargo to the skies. In 2018, I moved to the Mojave Desert to see the world’s largest aircraft for myself.

But when Allen died in November 2018, after a third attack of the lymphoma that had plagued him for decades, his space dream also died. While Stratolaunch is still alive, it has no designs to cross the Karman line. It is now a shameless defense contractor, specializing in what the UN Office for Disarmament has called “a new and destabilizing strategic weapon”: hypersonic technology that propels programmed aircraft at speeds of Mach 5 and above.

Here’s how it happened. With his death, Allen’s holding company Vulcan, which included Stratolaunch, as well as sports teams and an AI think tank, fell on his sister Jodie. She apparently had no desire to keep a space business, and offered Stratolaunch to buyers for $ 400 million, far less than her brother’s investment. It was unclear if there would be any people for the world’s largest aircraft. Richard Branson, who chronically underplays Allen’s contribution to his own space business, jokingly offered a dollar.

But one mysterious buyer has emerged: Cerberus, a private equity firm named after the mythical three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell. When Vulcan made the sale in October 2019, Stratolaunch not only withheld the purchase price, but also who bought it; reporters discovered the identity through SEC reports a few months later. Maybe it was because Cerberus, run by co-founder Stephen Feinberg, has some baggage. It once tried to create a personal weapon called the Freedom Group by picking up weapons manufacturers like Remington and Bushmaster. In 2012, Cerberus attempted to withdraw from the group after a mass murderer used a Bushmaster to slaughter 20 schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook; eventually it moved the assets to its Remington company, which declared bankruptcy in 2018. In addition, Feinberg once joked that if any of his employees had their photo in the newspaper, “We will do more than fire that person, we will kill him.”

Following the acquisition of Stratolaunch at the end of 2019, the private equity firm has boosted the workforce from 13 employees to more than 250 and focused the company’s mission specifically on hypersonic vehicles. It was considered a potential payload during the Allen era, but it was secondary to satellite launches and a possible manned vehicle called the Black Ice. The use of a carrier vehicle for hypersonic vessels has its advantages; Roc could launch its rocket-propelled cargo across the ocean, where the over-crushing sonic boom would not be so disruptive. Feinberg himself is knowledgeable about the defense establishment and has served under Donald Trump as head of the president’s intelligence advisory board. In December 2021, Stratolaunch won a contract from the Missile Defense Agency for a feasibility study on how the US could take countermeasures against hypersonic attacks. Stratolaunch builds its own hypersonic missile, codenamed Talon. The first is intended for a single launch — after the test it will fall into the sea. The second is a reusable hypersonic vehicle that will retain the key data after tests. For now, the intent is defensive, to mimic the behavior of potential assault missiles. But Stratolaunch does not rule out a future role in creating offensive hypersonic weapons.


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