The Private Equity Firm That Grounded Paul Allen’s Dream


Hello everybody. Elon now he doesn’t want to buy Twitter because he can’t count his bots. It would be thought that an AI guy like him would let the robots talk.

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Stratolaunch was based on a dream. Paul Allen, the indescribably wealthy co-founder of Microsoft, had grown up in the slavery of space exploration, devouring books such as the visionary rocket volumes by scientific writer Willy Ley. In the early 2000s, Allen funded a project known as Spaceship One, which won the X-Prize as the first private company 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 suborbital ecstasy. Meanwhile, Allen, frustrated by what he considered NASA’s shyness, decided to return to the space business. He retained legendary aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan to design a giant aircraft carrier that could launch satellites and other spacecraft beyond the skies. With its two fuselages and a wingspan of 385 feet, the Stratolaunch aircraft, later named Roc, was an impressive spectacle in itself, doubly due to its mission to lift its cargo into the sky. In 2018, I went to the Mojave Desert to see the world’s largest airplane for myself.

But when Allen died in November 2018, after a third attack of lymphoma that had haunted him for decades, his space dream also died. Although Stratolaunch is still alive, it has no design to cross the Karman line. He is now a brazen defense contractor, specializing in what the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs called “a new and destabilizing strategic weapon”: hypersonic technology that propels scheduled airstrikes at speeds of Mach 5 and above. .

That’s how it happened. Upon his death, Allen Vulcan’s holding company, which included Stratolaunch, as well as sports teams and an AI think tank, fell to his sister Jodie. Apparently, he had no desire to retain a space company, offering Stratolaunch to buyers for $ 400 million, far less than his brother’s investment. It was unclear if there would be any catch for the largest plane in the world. Richard Branson, who chronically underestimates Allen’s contribution to his own space business, jokingly offered a dollar.

But a mysterious buyer has emerged: Cerberus, a privately held company named after the legendary three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell. When Vulcan made the sale in October 2019, Stratolaunch not only withheld the sum of the purchase, but also who bought it; journalists discovered the identity through SEC reports a few months later. Maybe it was because Cerberus, directed by co-founder Stephen Feinberg, has luggage. He once tried to create a personal weapons device called the Freedom Group by collecting weapons manufacturers such as Remington and Bushmaster. In 2012, Cerberus attempted to break away from the group after a mass murderer used a Bushmaster to kill 20 schoolchildren and six teachers in Sandy Hook; finally, he transferred the assets to his company Remington, which was declared bankrupt in 2018. In addition, Feinberg once joked that if any of his employees had his photo in the newspaper: “We will do more than fire this person , it will kill him ”.

After buying Stratolaunch in late 2019, the privately held company increased its workforce from 13 employees to more than 250 and refocused the company’s mission specifically on hypersonic vehicles. These were considered possible payloads during the Allen era, but were secondary to the launch of satellites and a possible manned vehicle called the Black Ice. The use of a carrier vehicle for hypersonic boats has its advantages; Roc can launch his rocket-propelled charge over the ocean, where the sound boom that crushes his ears would not be so disturbing. Feinberg himself knows the establishment of the defense and served under Donald Trump as head of the president’s intelligence advisory board. In December 2021, Stratolaunch won a Missile Defense Agency contract for a feasibility study on how the U.S. could take countermeasures against hypersonic attacks. Stratolaunch is building its own hypersonic missiles, codenamed Talon. The first is intended for a single release; after the test it will fall into the ocean. The second is a reusable hypersonic vehicle that will retain key data after testing. At the moment, the intention is defensive, imitating the behavior of possible attack missiles. But Stratolaunch does not rule out a future role in creating offensive hypersonic weapons.



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