The Private Equity Firm That Grounded Paul Allen’s Dream

Plus: A visit to Stratolaunch, the music of the future, and prices America can’t run on.

Stratolaunch aircraft about to land on a runway in the desert

With its twin fuselages and 385-foot wingspan, the Stratolaunch plane, later dubbed Roc, is a breathtaking spectacle.Courtesy of Stratolaunch

Hey, everyone. Elon now doesn’t want to buy Twitter because it can’t count its bots. You’d think an AI guy like him would let the robots speak.


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Stratolaunch was based on a dream. Paul Allen, the unspeakably wealthy cofounder of Microsoft, had grown up in the thrall of space exploration, devouring books like the visionary rocketry tomes of science writer Willy Ley. In the early 2000’s, Allen funded a project known as Spaceship One, which snared the X-Prize as the first private venture to send a human into space. He later licensed the technology to Virgin Galactic, which built its own carrier vehicle to send Richard Branson into sub-orbital ecstasy. Meanwhile, Allen, frustrated with what he considered NASA’s timidity, decided to get back into the space business. He retained the legendary aircraft engineer Burt Rutan to design a giant carrier that could launch satellites and other spacecraft beyond the skies. With its twin fuselages and 385-foot wingspan, the Stratolaunch plane, later dubbed Roc, was a breathtaking spectacle in itself, doubly so because of its mission to lift its cargo to the heavens. In 2018, I trekked to the Mojave desert to see the world’s biggest airplane for myself.

But when Allen died in November 2018, after a third bout of the lymphoma that had dogged him for decades, his space dream died as well. While Stratolaunch still lives, it has no designs on crossing the Karman line. It is now an unabashed defense contractor, specializing in what the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs called “a new and destabilizing strategic weapon”: hypersonic technology that propels programmed airborne craft at speeds of Mach 5 and above.

Here’s how that happened. Upon his death, Allen’s holding company Vulcan, which included Stratolaunch, as well as sports teams and an AI think tank, fell to his sister Jodie. Apparently she had no wish to retain a space venture, offering Stratolaunch to buyers for $400 million, far less than her brother’s investment. It was unclear whether there would be any takers for the world’s biggest plane. Richard Branson, who chronically underplays Allen’s contribution to his own space venture, jokingly offered a dollar.

But one mysterious buyer emerged: Cerberus, a private equity firm named after the mythical three-headed dog who guards the gates of hell. When Vulcan made the sale in October 2019, Stratolaunch not only withheld the purchase sum, but also who bought it; reporters discovered the identity through SEC reports some months later. Maybe that was because Cerberus, run by cofounder Stephen Feinberg, has some baggage. It once tried to create a personal weapons juggernaut called Freedom Group by scooping up arms makers like Remington and Bushmaster. In 2012, Cerberus tried to divest itself of the group after a mass murderer used a Bushmaster to slaughter 20 schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook; ultimately it shifted the assets to its Remington company, which declared bankruptcy in 2018. On top of all that, Feinberg once reportedly joked that if any of his employees had their picture in the paper, “We will do more than fire that person, we will kill him.”

After buying Stratolaunch in late 2019, the private equity firm bulked up the workforce from 13 employees to more than 250 and refocused the company’s mission specifically on hypersonic vehicles. These had been considered as potential payloads during the Allen era, but they were secondary to satellite-launching and a possible manned vehicle called Black Ice. Using a carrier vehicle for hypersonic craft has its advantages; Roc can launch its rocket-propelled cargo over the ocean, where the ear-crushing sonic boom wouldn’t be so disruptive. Feinberg himself is knowledgeable about the defense establishment and served under Donald Trump as the 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 might take countermeasures against hypersonic attacks. Stratolaunch is building its own hypersonic missiles, codenamed Talon. The first is intended for a single launch—after the test it will drop into the ocean. 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 attack missiles. But Stratolaunch doesn’t rule out a future role in creating offensive hypersonic weapons.

This week, Stratolaunch held a press roundtable to formally open its new offices in the DC area, at Crystal City, Virginia, close to government agencies and the Pentagon. (It now acknowledges its Cerberus connection.) When I asked Stratolaunch’s new CEO, Zachary Krevor, about whether his company is permanently out of the space game, he said Stratolaunch owns the intellectual property developed under the Paul Allen regime and might possibly use it some day. But there are no plans for any projects involving space activities at this time. There are, of course, other potential uses for hypersonic technology—want to have breakfast and dinner in New York City, with a lunch break in London? And Stratolaunch says it has unnamed commercial customers, as well as government contracts. But the point of the press event was to help distance Stratolaunch in the public eye from Allen’s space-based vision and center its current national security mission. Think of Stratolaunch as Wernher von Braun in reverse.

I’m not necessarily making an argument against my home country developing state-of-the-art weaponry and countermeasures against such threats. (I’ll save my personal views for other fora.) But I will repeat the alarm that hypersonic technology upends the traditional equilibrium in an already unacceptable nuclear arms standoff. If a country is capable of delivering a decisive blow before an opponent can launch its own missiles, some Dr. Strangelove might well argue that the only sensible course is a first strike. Even developing defensive measures might burn precious seconds toward midnight on the Doomsday Clock. As the UN report on hypersonic weapons notes: “Missile defense is likely to strengthen the case for expanding investment in hypersonic capabilities.”

Put to this use, the glorious Roc doesn’t seem as glorious, and certainly not as inspiring, as it did when Paul Allen built the world’s biggest plane to hurl rockets into space. Sadly, the billionaire never got to see the giant bird take flight over the Mojave desert, as it finally did in April 2019. I can’t speak for what he would have thought of its current mission, but Stratolaunch under Cerberus gives me the willies. And I’m not talking about Willy Ley.


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In the September 2018 issue of WIRED, I wrote about Stratolaunch, after visiting its plane (which had yet to be christened Roc) several times in the Mojave desert, even walking its expansive wings. My conversation with Paul Allen about the project was the last press interview he would give.

Everything about Stratolaunch is supersized. It has six screaming Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines, salvaged from three 747s. Its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. It’s got more than 80 miles of wiring. Most astounding is its 385-foot wingspan, the spec that puts Stratolaunch in the history books. That number may not seem remarkable, but on a single airplane wing 385 feet is an eternity. It’s a football field plus the end zones and a little bit more. If the Wright brothers had begun their initial Kitty Hawk flight at the tip of one Stratolaunch wing, they could have completed the journey and done it twice more before they reached the other end.

Though the two fuselages look identical, only the right one has a cockpit, largely preserved from one of the 747s, with a throttle, foot pedal, and even some analog displays that a commercial pilot working in the 1970s might find familiar. One of the seats is covered by a sheepskin-like cushion of the type often found in New York City taxis. Looking out the window, the second fuselage is so far away that it looks like a plane sitting on an adjacent runway.

It’s hard to imagine this mammoth structure rising into the air. But the team has been methodically taking it through a series of tests: bearing its own weight, firing its engines, taxiing down 2-plus miles of runway. Allen promises Stratolaunch will ascend as early as this fall. Thousands of people will turn their eyes to Mojave when that first flight happens. But after that, what?


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Eric writes, “With the iPod gone and people no longer ‘owning music,’ will the children be able to access today’s music in the future, let alone remember what it was?”

Relax, Eric. Though the technology changes, the music never goes away. Record labels just figure out new ways to sell you the same songs over and over. Today’s 14-year-olds (the age when people make lifelong bonds to music) will have no problem accessing the tunes they listen to today. Decades from now, there will undoubtedly be channels populated with the tunes of Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and Oliva Rodrigo. Of course, we don’t know what media will dominate several decades hence. Maybe something that bypasses the ear and goes directly into the part of the brain that decodes aural vibrations? Whatever it is, I also suspect that hard-core fans will still be sufficiently hooked to own some of their cherished performances, listening to them on retro hardware that coaxes sounds from vinyl, cassettes, CDs … and refurbished iPods.

You can submit questions tomail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.


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