ON AIR | Virgin Orbit, the billionaire’s small satellite launch start-up Richard Branson, was planning to make its second launch attempt yesterday, carrying a payload for its “first customer”: NASA. Virgin Orbit hopes to build a lasting and profitable relationship with the government agency in the years to come.
Launching its LauncherOne rocket on the back of a 747 over the Californian desert, Virgin Orbit planned to take on board 10 of NASA’s CubeSat missions, including those needed for planetary exploration, earth sciences and heliophysics. A Virgin spokesperson assured Forbes that NASA was “an incredibly important partner for Virgin Orbit,” and reiterated NASA’s own feeling that small satellites will have a role to play in almost everything the US space agency does in the future.
However, with the deepening relationship between Virgin Orbit and NASA comes an increased risk. Richard Branson, by his own admission, has now spent more than a billion dollars (around 830 million euros) in orbit. Competitors and some critics were keen to point out that others have reached low earth orbit for a much lesser sum.
Peter Beck, of rival Rocket Lab, a small satellite launch startup, did not refrain from commenting in September, questioning “the amount of capital that has been paid to Virgin Orbit for very little. of results ”.
Virgin Orbit, however, feels like it is building a business to meet the needs of customers it feels it already has, claiming to be sitting on a “pipeline” of orders from global “government and commercial customers”.
Virgin Orbit sees the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) as a ‘future customer’, and is a current partner of the RAF ARTEMIS team for its space ambitions, as well as for projects with the national security community US – namely the US Air Force and Space Force and private companies like SITAEL, a private Italian space company.
Virgin Orbit claims it has already secured hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with customers and sold its manifesto for 2021. Reservations for 2022 are selling fast, the company claims.
The fact remains that failure is costly and Virgin Orbit (like Virgin Galactic) sells seats on a flight that is not yet functioning. The billionaire launched Virgin Galactic in September 2004 at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London – many promises and predictions have yet to be kept in the 16 years since. More recently, the company was forced to halt a powered test flight of its spaceplane in December, after a failure in an on-board computer interrupted the ignition, causing shares to fall by 17%.
Elon Musk, who is now the richest person in the world, has often spoken about the fact that SpaceX almost gave up before finally going into orbit in September 2008, on the fourth attempt. Even in a space race for billionaires, the money injected cannot last forever, and it is not yet clear how many more failures Virgin Orbit can swallow before something fundamental changes.
The risk-reward curve is steep, but confidence in Virgin has always been high. And for Richard Branson, a new opportunity opens up a little closer to (what once was) “home”.
Mark Boggett, Managing Director of Seraphim Capital, a specialist in space investment, is closely following this new launch. A number of start-ups in which Seraphim has invested may one day be Virgin Orbit customers, and will benefit from the fact that the company finally takes off from Cornwall, UK, “later in the year”.
“Virgin Orbit is finally getting us away from dangerous and compromised launch sites,” Mark Boggett told Forbes, “And gives a sovereign and flexible launch capability to the UK if it is successful”.
An insider from the Virgin Orbit group told Forbes that the group was “excited” to finally bring Richard Branson’s space activities back to the UK, although the source denied that the UK will be the next launch location.
With the UK straying from some of Europe’s space ambitions following Brexit, the start-up says it has developed a working relationship with the UK Space Agency and the Royal Air Force, and is expected to start manufacturing the mobile infrastructure needed on the ground to support launches from a base in the UK.
For Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, the “relationship with the United Kingdom is special”. The Cornwall project, he adds, “aims to bring the launch to Britain, a major target for civilian, defense and commercial purposes.”
While the tale will likely be grim if Virgin Orbit fails again on Sunday, Mark Boggett, unlike some investors, believes Orbit can survive one more failure (or two), “I think it’s a one-sided gamble. . If all goes well, it’s good for the feeling, otherwise we look forward to the next time, ”he said.
Article translated from Forbes US – Author: David Dawkins
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