By Andy Pasztor
A company founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson to launch small satellites botched its initial demonstration flight, as a rocket released from a specially outfitted jumbo jet failed to reach low-earth orbit.
Virgin Orbit's long-anticipated debut mission kicked off over Southern California in perfect weather when a converted Boeing Co. 747 jet, named "Cosmic Girl," climbed to 35,000 feet, a slender, 70-foot rocket slung under its left wing. Everything proceeded as planned with the red-nosed booster dropping away from the plane on command. But within seconds, its main liquid-fueled engine, capable of generating more than 70,000 pounds of thrust, ran into a problem and wasn't successful in carrying the test payload to its destination.
In follow-up messages on Twitter, the company said the main engine roared to life, but "an anomaly then occurred early" in the booster's trajectory, and the mission safely terminated. "Our goals today were to work through the process of conducting a launch, learn as much as we could, and achieve ignition," the company said. "We hoped we could have done more, but we accomplished those key objectives today."
Virgin Orbit officials had tamped down expectations, reminding reporters during a prelaunch teleconference on Saturday that on average one out of two launches of a new rocket design fail. The flight on Monday had been delayed from last year for some rocket modifications.
A successful flight would have provided a jolt of good news for the global space industry; several startup rocket ventures have lately stumbled or failed partly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some companies have been forced to shutter facilities, and interest in prospective launch contracts has slumped, while investments from many entrepreneurs and venture funds have dried up.
The failed launch also amounted to a personal setback for Mr. Branson, the high-profile British billionaire. Despite severe strains on his world-wide business empire because of the pandemic, he has continued to support and closely follow progress of the fledgling launch venture, of which he is a partial owner.
Virgin Orbit, which started building rockets in Long Beach, Calif., a few years ago and has about 500 employees, stands out from other fledgling launch providers partly because of its novel operating concept. The use of an airborne platform is intended to provide maximum flexibility as far as the time and location of launches. Customers are supposed to be able to set up satellite delivery to specific orbits, something that typically can't be arranged when small spacecraft piggyback rides on larger rockets boosting larger satellites.
Mr. Branson wasn't at the Mojave Air and Space Port when the four-engine jumbo jet lifted off. But on Saturday Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit's CEO, joked that he hadn't heard from his boss for some 40 minutes. Mr. Branson "has guided and mentored us through the years," Mr. Hart said, and was "always available for a phone call."
Even with a picture-perfect launch, prospects for the company's growth over the next few years would have seemed limited. Mr. Hart told reporters current plans call for ramping up commercial operations slowly, with two to four launches likely for all of 2021. Virgin Orbit initially marketed a price of $12 million for a launch, versus roughly five times that much for larger rockets, such as the Falcon 9 marketed by Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.
In the wake of the failure, Mr. Musk commented on the disappointment. "Sorry to hear that. Orbit is hard," he said in a message on Twitter. "Took us four attempts with Falcon 1," he wrote, referring to the rocket that SpaceX flew before the Falcon 9.
Virgin Orbit aims to loft into low-Earth orbit satellites weighing several hundred pounds, versus spacecraft weighing thousands of pounds for SpaceX and European competitor Arianespace SA.
Over the last two years, the U.S. has captured roughly 60% of the global market for launching such larger commercial satellites -- some rivaling the size of a pickup truck or van -- into higher orbits. Virgin Orbit is targeting civil, military and commercial customers at the lower end of the market and, according to Mr. Hart, already has several hundred million dollars in contracts.
Advances in satellite design and fabrication have resulted in steadily smaller and more capable satellites. But a number of analysts anticipate commercial customer demand will support only two or three small-satellite launch systems in coming years, and U.S. military needs are still unclear.
Other companies pursuing small-satellite launches include Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company that has a flight-proven booster; Blue Origin Federation LLC, established by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos; and Relativity Space, which aims to manufacture a rocket mostly from 3D-printed parts.
Virgin Orbit, which already has plans to perform launches from Guam, seeks to exploit the small-satellite market partly because it won't have to build or maintain any launchpads. If demand surges and it has finished rockets in the factory ready to go, the company envisions being able to swiftly ramp up its launch tempo by scheduling more frequent flights of the carrier aircraft.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com