After six years of launching satellites into space using modified aircraft rockets, Virgin Orbit has announced its closure due to a lack of funding. In an SEC filing, the subsidiary declared that it will be ceasing operations for “the foreseeable future,” leaving 675 employees, or 90% of its workforce, without jobs.
Virgin Orbit was established in 2017 to develop and commercialize the LauncherOne system, which was installed beneath a modified 747 airliner named Cosmic Girl. The system could launch 500-pound cubesats into Low Earth Orbit by firing them from a rocket launched from the airliner at an altitude of 30,000 – 50,000 feet. Despite early successes in development and service contracts with the UK military, the first official test of LauncherOne in May 2020 failed to deliver its simulated payload into orbit.
Although a second attempt in January 2022 successfully launched 10 NASA cube sats into LEO, and the company’s first commercial satellite launch in June of the same year was a success, Virgin Orbit made only six total flights between 2020 and 2023, with only four of them successful. The most recent launch, called Start Me Up, was meant to be the first commercial space launch from UK soil. However, an upper stage “anomaly” prevented the rocket’s payload from entering orbit, and it was later discovered that a $100 fuel filter had failed, causing the failure.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson invested over $55 million into Virgin Orbit in recent months, but the company’s failure to launch its Start Me Up rocket was the final blow. After announcing an “operational pause” and furlough for its 750 employees, Virgin Orbit was unable to secure new funding and announced its closure. CEO Dan Hart stated that the company had no choice but to implement “immediate, dramatic and extremely painful changes.” Severance packages, including a cash payment, continued benefits and job referrals to Virgin Galactic’s hiring department, will be given to impacted employees, while top executives will receive “golden parachute” severances approved by the company’s board.
Despite these setbacks, Virgin Orbit made significant progress in the satellite launch industry, and its closure is a loss for the field. However, with the increasing number of private space companies emerging, it is likely that new players will fill the void left by Virgin Orbit.