Sunday morning, Virgin Orbit became the third privately funded U.S. rocket company to reach orbit – and the only one to accomplish the feat from the air. The company’s liquid-fueled rocket, called LauncherOne, was dropped under the wing of Cosmic girl, Virgin Orbit’s custom Boeing 747, off California. Cosmic girlKelly Latimer’s pilot separated from the rocket at about 30,000 feet – the cruising altitude of a typical jet plane – and after a few seconds of free fall, LauncherOne ignited its engines and propelled itself into space. Once in orbit, the rocket released its payload of 10 cubesats built by researchers at NASA and several American universities before falling back to Earth.
The successful launch was a welcome victory for the Virgin team, which has been rocked by setbacks since its first launch attempt Last spring. This first test flight in May was interrupted a few seconds after the release of the rocket due to a rupture of its propellant line. After engineers identified and fixed the problem, company officials scheduled a second launch in December, but decided to postpone it as Covid-19 cases climbed around their headquarters in Los Angeles.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to keep the team safe, and a lot of our launch operations and operations are virtual,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told reporters at the meeting. a call ahead of Sunday’s launch. “To deal with a pandemic is truly amazing.”
Today’s launch marked the culmination of nearly a decade of work by engineers at Virgin orbit, which is one of two rocket companies founded by billionaire Richard Branson. In 2018, Virgin Orbit’s sister space company, Virgin Galactic, made the story by launching a spaceship carrying two humans under a custom plane, which sent them soaring to the edge of space. Branson clearly enjoys throwing stuff from airplanes and has endowed both companies with engineers and pilots who make it easy. Now the question is: can it make it a sustainable business?
Air launch is typically associated with missiles intended for targets on the Earth’s surface, but it also has a long history in the space industry. The first orbital air rocket, known as the Pegasus, was sent into orbit in early 1990 by Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has since been integrated into Northrop Grumman. Like LauncherOne, Pegasus is capable of propelling around 1,000 pounds of payload into space, and the rocket is dropped from the belly of an eviscerated passenger plane. But in the past 30 years, Pegasus has only flown 44 missions. To put that into perspective, SpaceX has flown more than twice as much in the past decade.
“When I started looking at feasibility studies and wondering if we should do it, Pegasus was the flashing neon sign that flashed in my vision 24/7,” said Will Pomerantz, vice president of projects specials at Virgin Orbit, to WIRED ahead of the company’s first attempt to launch last May. “Technologically, Pegasus is a huge success. But from a market point of view, maybe not.
Pomerantz says the reason Pegasus failed to attract many customers is that, when it launched, those customers did not exist. The commercial small satellite industry has exploded in recent years, and there are now hundreds of businesses looking for a cheap ride to space. Pegasus still exists, but its launch cost has skyrocketed over the past few decades. In the 1990s, NASA paid $ 16 million for a Pegasus launch. Today it costs closer to $ 60 million. Even with inflation factored in, that cost has almost tripled, and that’s more than most of these small satellite companies can afford. The air launch was once an idea ahead of its time, but now Pomerantz thinks its time has come.