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Crazy Aviators: The Eerie Similarities Between Billionaire Howard Hughes And Elon Musk

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He was a Los Angeles billionaire known worldwide for pushing the limits of engineering, safety and his bank account to achieve transportation breakthroughs, as well as for gossipy celebrity romances.

He churned through executives like a buzz saw, made puzzlingly costly business decisions and invited conflict by thumbing his nose at politicians and the law. Yet he was one of the great entrepreneurs of his time.

No, it isn’t Tesla’s mercurial billionaire CEO Elon Musk, who’s locked in a legal fight with the Securities & Exchange Commission that could lead to his ouster and must put the company on sound footing after burning through $5 billion since 2010 to popularize its electric cars and solar power.

We’re talking about billionaire Howard Hughes, who at his death was among the world’s richest people. Hughes’ machinery ushered in the oil age, his investments helped popularize commercial air travel, he ran Hollywood’s biggest studios, built an enormous gaming and real estate empire, and has an imprint that stretches from satellite television to the Las Vegas strip and biomedical research.

We’re talking about billionaire Howard Hughes, who at his death was among the world’s richest people. Hughes’ machinery ushered in the oil age, his investments helped popularize commercial air travel, he ran Hollywood’s biggest studios, built an enormous gaming and real estate empire, and has an imprint that stretches from satellite television to the Las Vegas strip and biomedical research.

READ MORE | Jeff Bezos To Give MacKenzie 25% Of His Amazon Stake, Worth Tens Of Billions, In Divorce

As federal judge Alison Nathan weighs the SEC’s charge that Musk violated a 2018 settlement arising from alleged share price manipulation with tweets about taking Tesla private, it’s instructive to look back at another mercurial entrepreneur’s career and fights with regulators, because even surprise victories didn’t guarantee long-term stability for Hughes.

Born in 1905, Hughes in the 1920s inherited Hughes Tool, which made drill bits used to burrow oil wells. Uninterested in oil, he let others run the company and moved to Los Angeles to spend Toolco cash on passion projects in two emerging technologies: aviation and moviemaking. Hughes’ silent filmTwo Arabian Knights won Academy awards. During the filming of his 1930 epic Hell’s Angels, pilots died and planes crashed.

The silver screen adventures made Hughes a celebrity. He dated Jane Russell and Katherine Hepburn and married actress Jean Peters. Likewise, Musk married British actress Talulah Riley following his divorce from author Justine (Wilson) Musk. He’s also dated actress Amber Heard and had a brief but sensational, relationship with indie singer Grimes.

Hughes’ aviation obsession led him in 1932 to create Hughes Aircraft as a division of Toolco, to siphon more profits and manufacture planes in the pursuit of flight records. By 1938 he flew around the world in record time, gaining global fame. In 1939, he paid $9 million to take control of Trans World Airlines.

Hughes’ aircraft unit was a big military contractor during World War II, and TWA, under his ownership, brought flying into the mainstream through expansion and enormous aircraft investments. The spending even supported burgeoning aerospace conglomerates like Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

At the time of his death in 1976, Hughes had controlled TWA, RKO, Air West and owned multiple billion-dollar businesses, six casinos and most of the undeveloped land in Las Vegas. Though he spent his last days as a recluse at Xanadu, his Bahamian estate, Hughes’ fame was worldwide, and it carries on with his Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of America’s biggest philanthropies. For all the success, Hughes also spent much of his public life fighting with politicians and regulators.

Like Musk, the SEC targeted Hughes for manipulative financial maneuvers in his publicly traded companies, and both faced shareholder lawsuits. Unlike Musk so far, Hughes’ reckless maneuvering also meant he was often forced to put his businesses into blind trust structures, shielded from his capricious management.

Born in South Africa, Musk came to the U.S. to study physics and economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, arriving at the dawn of the internet era in search of big opportunities. Musk later dropped out of Stanford to create a software company he eventually sold to Compaq.

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Next he built X.Com, a Web payments company that became part of PayPal, and Musk was treated as a cofounder alongside Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman and others. When eBay bought PayPal in 2002, Musk earned a $165 million payday that bootstrapped his push into new industries.

He began by founding the rocket company SpaceX in 2002, then in 2004 invested $6.35 million to transform Tesla from a concept on paper into the world’s leading electric car brand. He funded the residential solar energy startup SolarCity in 2006, which has since been integrated into Tesla, and in 2017 created the Boring Company as a way to advance his high-speed Hyperloop concept.

Like Hughes, Musk made daring, contrarian bets aimed at reshaping enormous industries. He, too, wanted to test the limits of corporate leadership to gain ground on incumbents like General Motors, electric utilities, oil companies and government-backed space endeavors.

Tesla competes with an oligopoly of carmakers specializing in petroleum-powered internal combustion engines. With SpaceX he saw an opportunity to ferry satellites, cargo and astronauts into space as NASA slimmed down. SolarCity’s goal is to accelerate clean energy use and curb dependence on fossil fuels.

All three have become high-profile, multibillion-dollar businesses, but none has produced meaningful profits. They’ve also been hamstrung by Musk’s driven, but often reckless, management style.

SpaceX, a wild success now worth $30 billion, has completed numerous launches for NASA and is the leader in private space travel. Musk also set a goal of not just getting to Mars but colonizing it. At the moment, SpaceX is also reportedly under review as a federal contractor, after Musk smoked pot on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast.

Tesla acquired SolarCity in a 2016 merger that puzzled investors and led to accusations of self-dealing since most board members rubber-stamping the purchase were affiliated with Musk. It also triggered a class-action shareholder suit. SolarCity has disappointed so far, losing market share and moving slowly on ambitious plans to sell solar roofs and Powerwall battery storage systems. But none of Musk’s companies has become more valuable or problematic than Tesla.

Two years after its 2010 Nasdaq debut, Tesla and Musk dazzled with the electric Model S, a sleek sedan that won critical raves and blew away sales expectations. Tesla shares soared, and Musk began planning new vehicles including the Model X SUV and mass-market Model 3 sedan. But X was two years late to market, mainly because of the problematic “falcon wing” doors Musk insisted on, and the 3’s rollout was hamstrung by bottlenecks with the automated assembly line Musk envisioned.

Tesla mostly abandoned his robotic production dream, even building Model 3’s almost by hand in a tentlike assembly line in a lot at its plant in Fremont, California. Since 2016 dozens of top Tesla executives have left, and Wall Street has grown uncomfortable with its billions of dollars in spending but weak financial position.

READ MORE | The 10 Most Notable New Billionaires Of 2019

Over time, Hughes became known for increasingly erratic behavior. His fame transitioned from Hollywood showmanship to mystery as he spent his later years as a recluse in a suite in Las Vegas’s Desert Inn and then at his Bahamian Xanadu. “Hughes survived three major airplane crashes and an automobile crash that put him out for two days. His head was badly banged around in all of these, and I think his mental condition can be directly attributed to those crashes,” Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ longtime accountant and confidant, told Forbes in 1972. Dietrich recalled a 1944 episode when he told Hughes, “You better see some doctors and do it quick.” When Hughes returned, Dietrich recalled, he said, “Noah, thanks a lot. I had a consultation with three doctors this morning and they tell me I’m right on the verge of a complete mental collapse. They tell me if I don’t get away for a while and relax…”

In 2017, Musk tweeted that he might be bipolar, a surprisingly candid admission for such a public figure. But in the summer of 2018, he created unnecessary headaches with several head-scratching moves. He triggered a defamation lawsuit for recklessly calling a British man who aided the rescue of a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave a “pedo” on Twitter. In August, after receiving an investment from Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, he dropped an even bigger Twitter bombshell. “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured,” he blared to 25 million followers. After a probe, the SEC found Musk had little basis to proclaim the buyout and charged him with stock manipulation. In September, after seeking his removal as CEO, the regulator fined Musk and Tesla $40 million, had him step down as chairman and agree to have tweets containing material information reviewed by Tesla officials. Musk agreed to the terms but neglected them and expressed contempt for the SEC. “I want to be clear. I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them,” he told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl in December 2018. That interview, combined with an inaccurate tweet about Tesla production, led the SEC to claim he had breached the settlement.

Now it’s up to Judge Nathan, who’s presiding over the case in the federal court for the Southern District of New York, to decide Musk’s fate. On Thursday, she asked that Musk and the SEC try to mediate a solution, which was an idea the entrepreneur seemed amenable to. But what if he again opts for a standoff? The most extreme outcome could force Musk out of Tesla management. Could his role at SpaceX also be curbed? Will banks who’ve lent billions to Musk pull their support? These are all scenarios that played out in Hughes’ half-century business career in aviation, film, gambling, real estate and energy.

Consider his deal to take control of Trans World Airlines, an investment that returned Hughes a fiftyfold profit. TWA also spent over a decade battling the billionaire. In 1961, it sued Hughes on antitrust grounds, accusing the mercurial businessman of using a crony as CEO to rubber-stamp $320 million in jet orders, which the airline leased from Hughes Tool and nearly caused the airline to go under. The buying binge propelled TWA into one of the world’s fastest growing airlines, but its cash needs proved to be a double-edged sword. When Hughes’ hand-picked CEO retired midway through a $265 million rescue financing, he was blindsided by a piece of fine print that allowed lenders to put his shares in trust if there were any executive departures. When the financing was completed, TWA was saved, but Hughes lost control. In came the professional management, which turned the tables by suing Hughes on antitrust grounds for the reckless aircraft orders. Hughes sold his TWA stock for $546.5 million in 1966.

Of Hughes’ management, Forbes said in a 1961 cover story, “On the whole, it is to be hoped that Howard Hughes will never again be able to exercise the absolute power he once held over TWA. The hope is not expressed from any high-flown considerations of economic morality or national interest. Rather, it is because Hughes is basically a distraction: No rational analysis of TWA and its prospects seems possible without soon being perverted into a discussion of this mysterious, magnetic, remarkable man.”

Even after Hughes’ sold his stake in TWA, the battle raged on, with the airline winning a $135 million judgment against the entrepreneur in 1963. For the better part of a decade, the nine-figure legal loss hung over Hughes’ empire. In 1972, an appeal by the billionaire made it to the Supreme Court, where Hughes prevailed.

That wasn’t the only airline conquest that resulted in legal trouble for Hughes. After exiting TWA, he set his sights on Air West, offering to buy the struggling airline for $81 million, or $22 a share, in a 1968 hostile takeover. Hughes won a lengthy battle and changed the airline’s name to Hughes Air West. However, in 1970 when shareholders were paid, they received just $8 a share. In 1973, Hughes and four associates were charged criminally for stock manipulation, conspiracy and wire fraud. In 1975 the SEC joined the legal battle. The suit raged on through Hughes’ death in 1976. His estate paid $30 million to the SEC in 1979 to settle the charges.

As a government contractor, Hughes invited particular scrutiny. Hughes Aircraft was notorious for missing deadlines and frustrating federal bureaucracies. During World War II, it was tasked with building a spy plane that was never delivered, though Hughes narrowly escaped death crashing a prototype in Beverly Hills. Then came notoriety. Hughes was contracted to build a plane to shuttle supplies and troops by air, instead of warships susceptible to German U-boats. His eight-engine, 750-person plywood H-4 Hercules, known nationwide as the Spruce Goose, was a marvel of ambition. But the war came and went, tens of millions were spent, and it wouldn’t fly.

In 1947, Owen Brewster, a U.S. senator from Maine who was an ally of infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, brought Hughes to the Senate to testify on why the government spent $40 million on a plane that wasn’t delivered. To deflect accusations the was selling vaporware, Hughes organized a media event in Long Beach, California, in which he flew the Spruce Goose 33 feet in the air for about a minute, winning the public’s support and eventually ending Brewster’s political career. But to remain a government contractor, he was forced in 1953 to spin off Hughes Aircraft and put it in a trust, which was called the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. When Hughes died in 1976, he was among the world’s richest people, and nearly everything he owned was under a legal cloud.

Hughes’ divestiture of Hughes Aircraft in 1953, Forbes reported in a 1984 feature, wasn’t without upside. “The suspicion has been that the whole affair was a tax move designed to keep Howard Hughes in sole control while paying no taxes,” wrote reporter Allan Dodds Frank. The Hughes estate sold Hughes Aircraft–which evolved into a coveted giant in satellite TV that birthed DirecTV–to General Motors in 1985 for $5 billion.

The sale turned the institute into a top philanthropy and a leader in genetics and biomedical research: It has distributed $22 billion and 28 of its current and former scientists have been awarded Nobel prizes. In a 1972 exclusive interview with Forbes, Dietrich, Hughes’ accountant, revealed that the billionaire had probably paid just $20,000 a year in taxes.

Dietrich himself spent years in a legal battle over undelivered bonus pay Hughes promised him if he stayed amid constant turnover. And though Dietrich’s tell-all to Forbes was mostly critical, the loyal adviser conceded, “Hughes did have a certain amount of mechanical genius.”

While Musk received most of the credit for Tesla’s early breakthrough with Model S, he benefited from an able team that included veteran auto engineers Peter Rawlinson and Nick Sampson; battery expert Kurt Kelty; George Blankenship, who designed Tesla’s stores; and government affairs pro Diarmuid O’Connell. None of them are still with Tesla. And while Musk gained billions from SpaceX, it’s been ably run (with minimal turnover) by president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell. It’s a contrast to Musk’s Model 3 “production hell” in 2018, when he spent many nights sleeping on a sofa in Tesla’s Fremont factory or jetting off to promote subterranean transit tunneling services by his Boring Co.

For all the similarities between the two men, there are also major differences. Hughes hardly ever relied on outside money to finance his whims. In his 20s, he smartly took 100% ownership of Hughes Tool and thus could plunder its cash without having to answer to anyone. Musk, on the other hand, magnified his PayPal windfall with enormous sums of other people’s money, on public stock markets and in private markets. He answers not only to public shareholders and venture capitalists in all of his endeavors but also to bankers, who’ve provided billions in margin debt to maintain large Tesla and SpaceX holdings as they’ve raised capital.

As much as Tesla and SpaceX’s combined $80 billion market cap is a marvel–and Musk’s newer ventures like Hyperloop and Boring Co. set impressive goals–they have yet to profit on their industry-changing intentions. Much of Musk’s empire is still based on undelivered promises anchored to time-bound investor expectations.

-Antoine Gara; Forbes Staff

-Alan Ohnsman; Forbes Staff

-With assistance from Susan Radlauer

Current Affairs

Here’s How The US Claims The Assange-Manning Conspiracy Worked

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The U.S. government has disclosed more of its case against WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange. It hinges on a claim he and Chelsea Manning worked together to crack a password for a computer storing sensitive government files.

An affidavit unsealed Monday outlining the case against Assange said he conspired with Manning when they discussed working together to crack a password “related to two computers with access to classified national security information.” More specifically, the password belonged to a user called FTP (not to be confused with an FTP server) on two Windows computers that Manning could access from a base in Iraq, the government said.

The FTP account wasn’t associated with any specific individual, and the government alleged that if Manning had used it to pilfer files and hand them over to Wikileaks, she could have foiled investigators looking into who was behind the leaks.

“Although there is no evidence that the password to the FTP user was obtained, had Manning done so, she would have been able to take steps to procure classified information under a username that did not belong to her,” the affidavit read. “Such measures would have frustrated attempts to identify the source of the disclosures to WikiLeaks.”

The alleged conspiracy to crack the password took place in March 2010, two months after she’d walked out of the Iraq base with classified war reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. She was later convicted and served seven years in jail for downloading tens of thousands U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables.

How passwords are cracked

The reason any password had to be cracked in the first place was the use of what’s known as a “hash.” Microsoft’s Windows operating system doesn’t store passwords in plain text. That’s to prevent hackers who find a way on to the computer from seeing and stealing them. Instead, Microsoft makes life harder for cybercriminals and snoops by turning that plain text into scrambled code. That string of letters and numbers is known as a “hash value” and it’s created when an algorithm is applied to the plain text of the password.

For an attacker to get at the plain text it’s possible to do a so-called “brute force attack.” The process for this is basic: The hacker creates a huge list of guessed passwords through the same hashing algorithm used by Windows to find a matched hash value for the hidden password. Once the same hash value is calculated, the password has been found.

Sometimes a password will be too complex for guessing to work in a short enough time frame. That’s where “rainbow tables” come in. These contain a massive number of hash values for previously calculated passwords. Hackers use them to do a quick comparison of the hash they have with the ones in the table, in the hopes that it’s already been seen before and a match is available.

“In computing terms we call this a time/memory trade-off. Rather than spend time on a task, we pre-calculate parts of it and store them somewhere, essentially trading time for memory,” says Tom Wyatt, senior penetration tester at cybersecurity provider Bulletproof. “These tables can be calculated or downloaded from various online sources, and it simply boils down to paying for storage for it all; even in 2010 this was fairly cheap and entirely possible.”

But Microsoft goes one step further in protecting those hash values by splitting them in two, storing the parts in separate files. Here’s where a little trick comes in handy: A hacker might be able to recover those two separate pieces by rebooting a Windows PC using a CD with the Linux operating system. Back in 2010, it was possible to do that and recover the full hash value.

Ken Munro, a penetration tester with Pen Test Partners, told Forbes the technique still works, as long as there’s no additional layer of security over it, such as full disc encryption. “Whilst the technique still works, it’s quite rare to find systems that don’t now have full disc or similar encryption,” he added. (Microsoft hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication). According to the government’s telling of the story, evidence suggests Manning tried, and very possibly failed, with this technique. In a footnote in the affidavit, the government said Manning hadn’t provided Assange with the full hash, only one of the two halves required.

It’s alleged Manning passed what she thought was a hash value to Assange. The Wikileaks chief then said he would pass it on to a specialist in cracking, according to chats over the Jabber encrypted communications app, as provided in the affidavit. But, as per the investigators’ claims, there was some confusion: Manning said she wasn’t even sure what she handed to Assange was the hash value they wanted. Assange messaged Manning to ask if there were “any more hints” about the hash and that he’d had “no luck so far,” according to the government account. From there it’s unclear what happened. The government admits it didn’t know whether the password was ever cracked.

Not that it changes much for Assange: The charge is that of conspiracy. If he did offer assistance to help Manning gain access to U.S. government systems and encouraged the then intelligence analyst to leak files, the charge still stands. Manning, who served seven years in jail before being pardoned by President Barack Obama, is back behind bars for refusing to testify in the investigation into Wikileaks. Her lawyer had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, couldn’t be reached for comment at the time of publication. She told Sky News yesterday that the indictment against her client showed “the kinds of communications journalists have with sources all the time.” Following Assange’s arrest, however, various journalists have said on Twitter that any incitement to hack organizations or steal documents was far from normal and risked breaking the law.

Meanwhile, the fallout from Assange’s arrest continues. According to Reuters, Ecuador’s telecommunications vice minister Patricio Real said the government’s networks had been hit by a mass of cyberattacks after it decided to revoke Assange’s asylum status. He claimed various government websites had been slammed by 40 million hacking attempts per day, double the number it typically sees.

-Thomas Brewster; Forbes Staff

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10 Rules Of Email That Will Reduce Your Stress Levels

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Email and smart phones can be stressful. Academics are calling this constant work connection “technostress”. Consequently, many European countries are now offering employees the “right to disconnect”.

The way email is used is complex, it cannot simply be labelled as “good” or “bad” and research shows that personality, the type of work people do and their goals can influence the way they react to email.

Good practice with email use is not just about limiting the amount of emails sent, but improving the quality of communication.

Here are ten tips to reduce the stress of email at work:

1. Get the subject line right

Use clear and actionable subject lines.

The subject line should communicate exactly what the email is about in six to ten words, to allow the recipient to prioritise the email without even opening it. On mobile devices, many people only see the first 30 characters of a subject line. So keep it short. But make it descriptive enough to give an idea of what the email is about from just the subject line.

READ MORE | Burnout, stress lead more companies to try a four-day work week

2. Ask yourself: is email the right medium?

Are you in the same office? Could you go and speak to the person? Could you call? Often these other forms of communication can avoid the inefficient back and forth of emailing.

Instant messaging and video calling platforms like Slack and Skype could be more appropriate for quick internal back and forth messaging. Also, remember that most of the advice below applies to all types of electronic communication.

3. Don’t email out of office hours

Research shows that out-of-hours emails make it harder for people to recover from work stress.

Try and influence your company culture by avoiding sending or replying to emails outside your normal working hours.

Management should lead by example and avoid contacting their staff outside of their normal working hours. Some workplaces even switch off email access to employees out of hours. Consider implementing this while keeping a backup phone system for emergency contact only.

New research has also shown that just the expectation of 24-hour contact can negatively affect employee health.

READ MORE | A Career Secret Weapon: Thank-You Notes

4. Use the delay delivery option

Some people like integrating their work and family lives and often continue working from home during their off-job time. If you are one of these people, or if you work across time zones, consider using the delay delivery option so your emails do not send until the next working day and do not interfere with other people’s off-job time.

5. Keep it positive

Think about the quality of email communication. Not just the quantity. Changes to email use should also focus on the quality of what is being sent and take into consideration the emotional reaction of the recipient.

Research suggests that conflicts are far easier to escalate and messages to be misinterpreted when communicated via email. Therefore, if it is bad news, think back to rule #2: is email the right medium?

6. Try ‘no email Friday’

In order to shift company culture and get people thinking about other methods of communication than email, try a “no email Friday” on the first Friday of every month, or maybe even every week. This is an initiative suggested by experts from the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, and is being used by businesses around the globe. Employees are encouraged to arrange face-to-face meetings or pick up the phone – or just get on top of the many emails they already have in their inbox on that day.

READ MORE | The 12 Biggest Career Crashes Of 2018

7. Make your preferences known

Research has shown that not only too much but also too little email can cause stress due to a mismatch between the communication preferences of different people. Some people may like being emailed and cope much better with high email traffic than other means of communication. For these people, reducing the amount of emails they receive may cause more stress than it alleviates.

So consider people’s individual differences and make yours known. Add your preferred contact preferences to your email signature whether it is email, text or instant messages or a phone call.

8. Consider a holiday ‘bounce back’

Having a backlog of emails that builds up over the week appears to be one of the most commonly mentioned sources of technostress for workers. Think about setting up a system where emails are bounced back to the sender when someone is on holiday, with an alternative contact email for urgent requests. This would let you come back to a manageable inbox.

9. Have a separate work phone

Make this the only mobile device you can access work emails on, which gives you the freedom to switch it off after work hours. Also consider turning off email “push” (this is where your email server sends each new email to your phone when it arrives at the server) and instead choose a regular schedule (such as once per hour) for emails to be delivered to your phone (this also increases battery life).

10. Avoid late night screen time

Research suggests that late night smart phone use reduces our ability to get to sleep and also leads to constant thoughts and stress about work. This in turn reduces your sleep quality. Make the bed a phone-free zone to improve your sleep hygiene.

The Conversation

-The Conversation

-Ricardo Twumasi; Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, University of Manchester

-Cary Cooper; 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, University of Manchester

Lina Siegl; PhD Researcher, University of Manchester

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Technology

The World’s Largest Airplane Takes Flight. Next Stop? Outer Space

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On Saturday, the world’s largest aircraft, the Stratolaunch, made its first complete test flight. The aircraft flew for about two and a half hours over the Mojave desert, reaching a speed of 189 miles per hour and an altitude of 17,000 feet.

The aircraft was created by the Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, which was founded by the late Paul Allen. The purpose of the plane isn’t normal commercial travel, but rather to carry rockets into high altitudes, then launch those rockets from the plane itself.

“What a fantastic first flight,” Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch, said in a statement. “Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems.”

Scaled Composites, which was acquired by Northrop Grummon in 2007, worked on the design and build of the Stratolaunch aircraft. Saturday’s test flight was piloted by Scaled Composites test pilots Evan Thomas and Chris Guarente.

“I honestly could not have hoped for more on a first flight especially of an airplane of this complexity and this uniqueness,” Thomas said in a press briefing following the flight.

Stratolaunch in flight
Stratolaunch in flight on Saturday, April 13 Picture: STRATOLAUNCH SYSTEMS CORPORATION

The Stratolaunch aircraft was first announced in 2011, and is the largest plane ever built out of composite materials. Its wingspan is 385 feet, the longest of any aircraft that has ever flown, including the Spruce Goose, which had a wingspan of about 320 feet. By comparison, a Boeing 747 has a wingspan of about 212 feet – making the Stratolaunch plane nearly twice the size. It’s propelled by six PW4056 turbofan engines, and is actually capable of launching multiple rockets on a single flight, up to about 500,000 pounds.

Airplane-launched rockets seemed at one point to be a good bet as a way of providing more convenient flights into space. Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize for launching the first private, reusable spacecraft into space in June of 2004. That effort was backed by Paul Allen, and this approach was not only adopted by Stratolaunch but also by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

However, it’s taken much longer than expected to develop these types of spaceflight. Virgin Galactic only first reached a space-approaching altitude at the end of 2018 – 14 years after that first Scaled Composite flight – though it hopes to be providing passenger service as early as later this year. Stratolaunch at one time was developing a rocket for its aircraft, but abandoned that effort earlier this year.

Rather than launch its own rockets, Stratolaunch has shifted strategy to be a platform for other aircraft-launched rockets. In particular, for Northrop Grummon’s Pegasus family of rockets. First demonstration Pegasus flights off of the Stratolaunch plane are scheduled for 2020.

Though they’ve taken longer to develop, the arrival of private plane-launched rockets via Virgin and Stratolaunch may be well-timed, as more satellite startups are looking for options to get satellites into space on their own timetable. Rockets launched from airplanes have more flexibility in terms of timing than their counterparts that launch from the ground, which may be a critical factor for companies looking to build up constellations in a hurry.

-Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff

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