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Stratolaunch plane
Stratolaunch’s plane soars during its first test flight in April. (Scaled Composites Photo)

Sources say Vulcan Inc. is looking to sell Stratolaunch, the space venture founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, and one report says the asking price could be as high as $400 million.

That price tag was reported today by CNBC, quoting unnamed sources who were said to be familiar with the discussions.

Vulcan had nothing new to say about Stratolaunch’s fate, which has been the subject of rumors for months. “Stratolaunch remains operational,” Alex Moji, manager of corporate communications at Vulcan, told GeekWire in an emailed statement. “We will provide an update when there is news to share.”

Stratolaunch’s big-ticket item is the world’s largest airplane, with a wingspan of 385 feet. The plane, which had its first and only test flight in April, is currently housed at the company’s giant hangar at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

Paul Allen’s original plan, hatched more than seven years ago, was to use the plane as a flying launch pad for rockets capable of sending payloads into a wide variety or orbits from any location within range of a big enough runway.

As time went on, Allen also funded work on a hydrogen-fueled rocket engine that bore his initials, PGA, and supported the development of designs for a variety of launch vehicles including a space plane and a hypersonic rocket plane.

After Allen’s death last October due to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his sister, Jody Allen, became the executor and trustee of his estate, including Vulcan Inc. and Stratolaunch. Work on the rocket engine and the launch vehicles was put on hold – and the size of Stratolaunch’s staff was cut back dramatically. Getting the plane into the air became the company’s sole focus.

Now that the plane has flown, sources familiar with the situation in Mojave confirm that Vulcan is making inquiries about selling the Stratolaunch venture. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly by their employers.

CNBC quoted its sources as saying that Vulcan talked with Richard Branson, the British-born billionaire who founded Virgin Galactic, about purchasing the plane and intellectual property for $400 million.

GeekWire’s sources couldn’t confirm that part of the report. They said that figure was on the high end of the speculative range, and they were even more dubious that such an offer to sell would be taken seriously.

If Vulcan does sell Stratolaunch’s plane, intellectual property and Mojave facilities, a more likely buyer would be Northrop Grumman. One of Northrop Grumman’s subsidiaries, Mojave-based Scaled Composites, built the plane for Stratolaunch. And Northrop Grumman Innovation, which was known as Orbital ATK before its acquisition more than a year ago, has an agreement with Stratolaunch to provide rockets for the plane’s air-launch operation.

Even Northrop Grumman seems unlikely to pay $400 million, however, particularly because it’s not clear how much of a market there would be for the launch services Stratolaunch could provide. There’s a chance that the world’s biggest plane will end up in a museum — like the Spruce Goose, which was the world’s biggest plane when Howard Hughes had it built in the 1940s.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Group had no comment on today’s report. But CNBC’s account includes a classic Branson twist: The billionaire reportedly said he’d buy Stratolaunch … for $1.

Read the full report from CNBC.

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