Virgin Orbit’s End Is The Beginning Of New Space’s Next Phase

Cosmic Girl

Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 rocket air-launcher was reimagined in Stratolaunch’s livery after the latter won the asset in Virgin’s bankruptcy auction in May.    

Credit: Stratolaunch

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” The cliche made famous by the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff” is so well-worn in space endeavors that it falls in and out of popular use. But starting again with Virgin Orbit’s disintegration in May, the cliche could be due for a major comeback.

Virgin Orbit, once a high-flying example of both air-launched space access technology and special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC)-fueled investor frenzy, will close after selling its assets to four winning bidders in a U.S. bankruptcy auction. The four reportedly will pay about $36 million for the combined Virgin Orbit assets.

  • Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch, Vast and liquidator acquire assets for $36 million
  • Virgin Orbit is likely to be the first of many SPAC breakdowns

Activity in a federal bankruptcy court in Delaware recently set the breakup in motion, with deals expected to close imminently, Virgin Orbit announced May 23. The moves foreclose efforts to keep Virgin Orbit operating as its own business, which had been management’s explicit hope.

Successful launcher Rocket Lab won the asset purchase agreement for Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach, California, production and manufacturing assets. Rocket Lab will pay $16.1 million for the 144,000-ft.2 headquarters and manufacturing complex known as the Conant Facility, as well as certain production assets, machinery and equipment there.

Rocket Lab says the combination of Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach assets with its own existing production, manufacturing and test capabilities should advance production of the company’s planned larger launch vehicle, the Neutron. Rocket Lab will not use Virgin Orbit’s launch system within Rocket’s existing launch services, the Electron rocket.

“With Neutron’s design and development well advanced, this transaction represents a capital-expenditure savings opportunity to augment our production capability to bring Neutron to the launchpad quickly, to serve our customers and their future success,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO and founder says. “Securing the lease to the Conant Facility adds to our existing presence in Long Beach and provides co-located engineering, manufacturing and test capabilities for our Neutron team.”

Stratolaunch—itself a recovering air-launched orbital effort that now focuses on hypersonic customers— was awarded its $17 million “stalking horse” bid for Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 rocket-launcher, Cosmic Girl.

Stratolaunch aims to bring Cosmic Girl to Mojave, California, “in a couple of months” after putting the 747-400 through a heavy-maintenance C check. The aircraft then will undergo modification work to make it compatible with the company’s Talon hypersonic test vehicle in time to fly its first planned operational launch missions next year.

“We’ve been evaluating how to increase capacity for a while now because of the demand signal from the Pentagon and others for a higher test-launch cadence,” Stratolaunch CEO and President Zachary Krevor says. “That led us to do a few different studies on a few different launch platforms—one of which was the 747-400. We did high-fidelity separation test analysis on that so we could be confident of results—and now, following the recent drop test from Roc, we know the flight-test results anchor our models.”

Krevor acknowledges that the 747’s existing underwing launch system pylon, developed for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, cannot be used “directly” by Stratolaunch. “[But] major portions of the launch system can be used,” he adds. “That’s another reason why we are thrilled to get this aircraft. We will update the pylon adapter for our release system. Otherwise, it’s a real natural match for us.”

The 28-ft.-long Talon weighs around 7,000 lb. and—despite its 14-ft.-span delta wing—is expected to fit easily beneath the 747’s left wing. The LauncherOne, by contrast, is around 70 ft. long and weighs about 55,100 lb. The Talon uses a comparable liquid-oxygen/kerosene propellant set to the LauncherOne and for prelaunch requirements requires “some inert fluids that are already onboard the 747,” Krevor adds.

The addition of the 747 will increase the common spares pool with Stratolaunch’s current Roc host ship, the two-fuselage structure of which is based on two joined, cannibalized 747-400s. Cosmic Girl also will enable Stratolaunch to meet demands for simultaneous hypersonic tests on the East and West Coasts of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Launcher—once its own launch startup but now a subsidiary of Vast—is purchasing Virgin Orbit’s Mojave facility, along with machinery, equipment and inventory, for $2.7 million, according to CNBC. A liquidation company called Inliper took Virgin Orbit’s office equipment.

In the end, Virgin Orbit ran out of money more than it ran out technological prowess (AW&ST May 8-21, p. 28). The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April on the heels of a highly promoted but failed launch effort from the UK in January. At the time, Virgin Orbit representatives were scrambling in the background to raise fresh funds, but the splashy letdown scared off investors.

The new funds were needed because Virgin Orbit raised only a fraction of what it expected when it became a publicly traded company through a reverse merger with a SPAC in late 2021 (AW&ST March 27-April 9, p. 58). The financial distress did not break into the public domain until around the end of the first quarter this year, driven in part by regulatory requirements to disclose meaningful financial updates.

Just a year ago, company leaders were asserting that Virgin Orbit was tracking more than $4 billion worth of opportunities and actively pursuing more than $1.5 billion worth of those. There were handshake deals to expand the 747 fleet to three from just Cosmic Girl, with L3Harris Technologies tapped to do rocket-loading conversions. The Long Beach factory was expected to produce as many as 20 LauncherOnes per year.

Most industry insiders expect Virgin Orbit’s demise to be only the beginning of the end of several SPAC-related space upstarts. Several newly public startups have received stock market delisting notices in recent months due to their share prices falling below required thresholds to remain on major indices.

Analysts regularly note that many startups that went public in recent years likely will run out of cash this summer. “We see liquidity concerns coupled with the difficult financing environment as severe threats to Astra Space’s business model,” Bank of America analysts said May 25.

The problem for most of these companies, including Virgin Orbit, remains that they run out of financial runway before achieving enough technological reliability and operating revenue. Tragically, many of them can point to technological achievements in relatively short periods of operations. For instance, Virgin Orbit was founded by Richard Branson in 2017. Although the first launch of LauncherOne in May 2020 failed to reach orbit, the vehicle went on to place 33 satellites into orbit in 2021-22.

But in a high-cost marketplace such as space, money is the most precious fuel. “Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered,” Virgin Orbit’s May 23 breakup announcement stated. That may be true, but probably not for the reasons managers hoped. 

Michael Bruno

Based in Washington, Michael Bruno is Aviation Week Network’s Executive Editor for Business. He oversees coverage of aviation, aerospace and defense businesses, supply chains and related issues.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.