Unfinished business

This year displayed a tantalizing mix of technical breakthroughs, human achievements and also vulnerability.

Six months after the death of its sponsor, billionaire Paul G. Allen, the Stratolaunch aircraft became the largest plane (by wingspan) ever to fly when pilots lifted off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The video is amazing, but wowing us isn’t why Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and self-proclaimed “Idea Man,” formed Stratolaunch Systems Corp. eight years ago. He wanted to prove that satellite launch costs could be slashed by carrying launch vehicles and satellites to an altitude of 35,000 feet and boosting them from there. This would prepare the way for “world-altering” satellite applications, to use the company’s words.

Still unclear is whether the Stratolaunch flight was the start of a new way of business or something that will be remembered as an engineering feat with little long-term significance, akin to the first flight of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose in 1947. The company issued a dryly worded statement in October saying it had “transitioned ownership” to a person or entity it did not name.

In another case of unfinished business, neither of NASA’s Commercial Crew contractors managed to launch a crew to the International Space Station this year. SpaceX’s uncrewed launch to ISS and Boeing’s pad abort test, deemed acceptable by NASA, suggest that 2020 could be the year we see this achievement.

And of course there is the matter of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft and the accidents that killed 346 people. As of this writing, the FAA had yet to bless an update to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System anti-stall software and the planes remained grounded.

I believe it will take more than the MAX aircraft returning to flight in 2020 to achieve closure on this issue. An independent panel of some kind should be convened with the gravitas and authority of the Rogers commission that examined the space shuttle Challenger accident or the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The many engineering, business and regulatory lessons from this saga should be recorded for those in business today and for posterity.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Unfinished business