The private equity firm that made Paul Allen’s dream come true

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Hi all. Elon now doesn’t want to buy Twitter because he can’t count his bots. You would think that an AI guy like him would let the robots talk.

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Stratolaunch was based on a dream. Paul Allen, the unheard of wealthy co-founder of Microsoft, grew up in the thrall of space exploration, devouring books like science fiction rocket tomes. Willie Lay. In the early 2000s, Allen funded a project known as Spaceship One. received X-Prize as the first private enterprise to send a man into space. He later licensed the technology to Virgin Galactic, who built their own launch vehicle to send Richard Branson to suborbital ecstasy. Meanwhile, Allen, frustrated by what he felt was NASA’s timidity, decided to return to the space business. He hired the legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan to design a giant aircraft carrier that could launch satellites and other spacecraft out of the sky. The twin-fuselage, 385-foot-wing Stratolaunch, later called the Roc, was a spectacular sight in itself, doubly so because of its mission to lift cargo into the skies. In 2018 I went to the Mojave Desert to see world’s largest aircraft for me.

But when Allen died in November 2018 after a third bout of lymphoma that had plagued him for decades, so did his dream of space. As long as the Stratolaunch is still alive, it is not going to cross the Karman line. Now it’s an unabashed defense contractor specializing in what the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs called “new and destabilizing strategic weapons”: hypersonic technology that propels programmed airborne vehicles at Mach 5 and above.

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Here’s how it happened. After his death, Allen’s holding company Vulcan, which included Stratolaunch as well as sports teams and an AI think tank, was taken over by his sister Jodi. Apparently, she had no desire to keep the space venture alive, offering the Stratolaunch to buyers for $400 million, far less than her brother had invested. It was unclear whether there would be buyers for the world’s largest aircraft. Richard Branson, who chronically underestimates Allen’s contribution to his own space venture, jokingly dollar offered.

But one mysterious buyer has emerged: Cerberus, a private equity firm named after the mythical three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell. When Vulcan made the sale in October 2019, Stratolaunch not only withheld the purchase price, but also who bought this; reporters discovered personality through SEC reports a few months later. Maybe that’s because Cerberus, run by co-founder Steven Feinberg, has some baggage. He once tried to create a personal weapon juggernaut called Freedom Group involving arms manufacturers such as Remington and Bushmaster. In 2012 Cerberus tried to get rid of the group itself after a mass murderer used Bushmaster to kill 20 schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook; she ultimately transferred the assets to her Remington company, which declared bankruptcy in 2018. On top of that, Feinberg once reportedly joking that if a photograph of any of his employees appears in the newspaper, “we will do more than just fire this person, we will kill him.”

Since buying Stratolaunch in late 2019, the private equity firm has grown its workforce from 13 to over 250 and refocused the company’s mission on hypersonic vehicles. They were considered potential payloads during the Allen era, but they were secondary to satellite launches and a possible manned vehicle called Black Ice. Using a vehicle for hypersonic vehicles has its advantages; Roc can launch his rocket payload over the ocean where the deafening sonic boom isn’t as devastating. Feinberg himself is well aware of the defense establishment and served under Donald Trump as head of the Presidential 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 is developing its own hypersonic missiles, codenamed Talon. The first is designed for a single launch – after testing, it will fall into the ocean. The second is a reusable hypersonic vehicle that will retain key data after testing. For now, the intent is defensive in nature to mimic the behavior of potential attack missiles. But Stratolaunch doesn’t rule out a future role in offensive hypersonic weapons.

Stratolaunch held a press round table this week to officially open its new DC offices in Crystal City, Virginia, close to government offices and the Pentagon. (The company now admits its connection to Cerberus.) When I asked new Stratolaunch CEO Zachary Crevor if his company was out of the space game for good, he said that Stratolaunch owns intellectual property developed under Paul Allen’s regime, and possibly can use it somehow. day. But at present there are no plans for any projects related to space activities. There are, of course, other potential applications of hypersonic technology – want to have breakfast and dinner in New York with a lunch break in London? And Stratolaunch says it has unnamed commercial clients as well as government contracts. But the purpose of the press conference was to distance Stratolaunch in the public eye from Allen’s space vision and focus on its current national security mission. Think of Stratolaunch as Wernher von Braun in reverse.

I do not necessarily oppose the development in my home country of modern weapons and means to counter such threats. (I’ll save my personal views for other forums.) But I’ll reiterate the warning that hypersonic technology breaks the traditional balance in the already unacceptable confrontation of nuclear weapons. If a country is capable of delivering a decisive blow before the enemy can launch its own missiles, some Dr. Strangelove might well object that the only reasonable course is a first strike. Even the development of protective measures can burn precious seconds closer to midnight. Doomsday Clock. As the UN report on hypersonic weapons notes: “Missile defense is likely to strengthen the case for increased investment in hypersonic capabilities.”

Used this way, the magnificent Roc doesn’t feel as great and certainly not as inspiring as it did when Paul Allen built the world’s largest rocket-launching aircraft. Unfortunately, the billionaire never saw the giant bird fly over the Mojave Desert. finally it happened in April 2019. I can’t tell what he would think of his current mission, but the Cerberus-driven Stratolaunch annoys me. And I’m not talking about Willie Lee.

Time travel

In the September 2018 issue of WIRED magazine. I wrote about Stratolaunch, having been on his plane (which was yet to be christened Rukh) several times in the Mojave Desert, even taking a walk on its wide wings. My conversation with Paul Allen about the project was the last press interview he gave.

Everything about Stratolaunch is super-sized. It has six roaring Pratt & Whitney turbofan jets taken from three 747s. Its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. It has over 80 miles of wiring. Most striking is its 385-foot wingspan, a characteristic that puts the Stratolaunch in the history books. This number may seem insignificant, but for one airplane wing, 385 feet is an eternity. This is a football field plus end zones and a little more. If the Wright Brothers had begun their original Kitty Hawk flight at the tip of one Stratolaunch wing, they could have completed the journey and done so twice more before reaching the other end.

Although the two fuselages look the same, only the right one has a cockpit largely preserved from one of the 747s, with a throttle, pedal, and even some analog displays that might sound familiar to a commercial pilot working in the 1970s. One of the seats is covered with a lambskin cushion often found in New York taxis. Looking out the window, the second fuselage is so far away that it looks like a plane sitting on a nearby runway.

It is hard to imagine that this gigantic structure rises into the air. But the team methodically conducted a series of tests with him: bearing his own weight, starting the engines, taxiing along the runway for more than 2 miles. Allen promises that Stratolaunch will rise this fall. Thousands of people will turn their eyes to the Mojave when this first flight takes place. But what after that?

ask me one thing

Eric writes:ipod gone and people who don’t “own the music” anymore, will kids be able to access today’s music in the future, let alone remember what it was?”

Relax Eric. While technology changes, music never goes away. Record labels are just coming up with new ways to sell you the same songs over and over again. Today’s 14 year olds (the age when people make lifelong commitment to music) will have no problem accessing the tunes they are listening to today. Decades from now, there will no doubt be channels filled with the tunes of Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Oliva Rodrigo. Of course, we do not know which media will dominate in a few decades. Maybe something that bypasses the ear and goes straight to the part of the brain that decodes sound vibrations? Whatever it is, I also suspect hardcore fans will still be hooked enough to some of their cherished performances by listening to them on retro gear that picks up sounds from vinyl, cassettes, CDs… and refurbished iPods.

You can send questions to [email protected]. Write ASK FOR A FEE in the subject of the email.

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