Virgin Orbit Test Flight Hits Low Earth Orbit—Billionaire Branson Joins Elon Musk’s SpaceX At Key Milestone

Virgin Orbit Test Flight Hits Low Earth Orbit—Billionaire Branson Joins Elon Musk’s SpaceX At Key Milestone

Billionaire Richard Branson’s small satellite launch business Virgin Orbit has successfully reached orbit, making Virgin one of just a handful of companies to have reached the critical milestone.

After failing a test in May last year, Virgin Orbit today became the world’s first launch company to successfully drop an orbit-bound rocket from the underside of a 747 wing in mid-air. The technology allows satellites to be launched from runways around the world and will likely open up the opportunities in space to smaller nation states, businesses and educational institutions.

Virgin’s 747 – called Cosmic Girl – took off from Mojave at around 2pm (U.S.) today, dropping LauncherOne from beneath its wing 40 minutes later. Without a SpaceX-style livestream, hundreds of fans watched tweets online, (mostly) wishing the British billionaire and his U.S.-based team well.

At 2:50 pm Virgin Orbit announced–“LauncherOne has reached orbit!” after successfully detaching from the underside of the wing, and blasting off once the plane was clear. “Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.” Orbit tweeted, “Even the folks on comms are trying really hard not to sound too excited.”

Carrying 10 small satellites for NASA, Orbit confirmed that the LauncherOne vehicle would “coast” for around half an hour, before delivering its payload of small, cube-like satellites.

An hour later Orbit confirmed by Twitter, “The payload separation command was issued as planned. The team is going through the data now to confirm everything–but it’s very encouraging.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at NASA congratulated the Virgin team, “I know there are more steps and burns today. But, what an amazing achievement already today, team [Virgin Orbit].”

Branson now joins the small pool of entrepreneurs to have reached low earth orbit. Elon Musk and SpaceX hit the milestone in September 2008, at the fourth attempt, while New Zealand based Rocket Lab has now made 17 orbital launches since first tasting success in January 2018.

Money Well Spent?

Much of the conversation around Virgin Orbit has focused on the staggering money spent–over $1 billion dollars according to Branson–despite failing to reach orbit until now, a notoriously difficult achievement.

In a year that saw the recapitalization of the entire Virgin Group after the Covid-19 pandemic grounded Branson Virgin Atlantic airline, questions were asked over why so much money had been spent on Orbit at a time when Virgin faced a genuine fight for its own survival. The question was not lost on William Pomerantz, VP of special projects at Virgin Orbit told Forbes in September, as Virgin struggled during the pandemic, “We’re all reading those same news stories and seeing the social media pile-on and everything else,” Pomerantz says of the problems facing Virgin Atlantic at the time. “That motivates us.”

Despite shedding over 3000 jobs at Virgin Atlantic, Branson kept his faith with Orbit despite loud criticism from the space investment community over the money invested so far. Peter Beck at Rocket Lab claimed to have reached orbit for a far smaller sum and investors disputed whether or not Virgin would be able to compete in the (smaller than expected) market alongside SpaceX–who will carry satellites in bulk–and Rocket Lab, who offer a more bespoke service.

However, Branson’s faith in Virgin Orbit, which splintered off from Virgin Galactic in 2017, has now likely paid off and the British businessman will aim to build a business from the technology he’s now proved can work.

Branson will now target long-term business relationships with some of the biggest names in the industry. Virgin Orbit has told Forbes in the past that its “first customer” NASA will be a key client, while opportunities in the U.K. (post-Brexit) are opening up alongside work for  the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. Private companies like SITAEL, a privately-owned space firm from Italy, have also expressed interest.

This article is auto-generated by Algorithm Source: www.forbes.com

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