Failure to Launch
Virgin Orbit’s extraordinary plan to launch rockets from old 747s has ended in failure. But was CEO Dan Hart dogged or deluded for thinking he could make it work? Adam Thorn investigates its demise.
On 30 March, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, Dan Hart, invited his 670 employees to dial into an all-staffer conference call, where, they were told, he would address the company’s future. Two months earlier, Orbit’s landmark 747 satellite launch in the South-West of England ended in disaster after its rocket failed to reach space, destroying its nine payloads onboard. The high-profile incident – reported globally – led to the business’ operations being paused, most of its staff being stood down and a mad scramble to secure a rescue deal. Hart had been giving his team daily updates. Still, he choked back tears when he told them that 90 per cent of employees would be made redundant and work ceased for the foreseeable future. “This company, this team — all of you — means a hell of a lot to me,” he said. “And I have not, and will not, stop supporting you, whether you’re here on the journey or elsewhere.”
Space, we’re always told, is hard, but that afternoon, it was emotional, too.
The news upset me because, just months earlier, I spoke to Hart via Zoom from his office in California after speculatively asking the company for somebody to interview. As a major player in the space business, Hart had no real reason to help me out. But as we spoke, I was struck by his giddy enthusiasm for the project and the space industry itself. “I’ve been in the business for nearly 40 years, and I’ve seen space go from the bastion of large government-funded, government-controlled programs to where there are satellite companies all over the place,” he said. “I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and three sophomores in college came up to me with a satellite in their hands and said, ‘Could you give us a ride?’ I was blown away!” It was earth-shattering, he added, what was happening now. The chat was so good, I released it not only as a podcast but as a cover for this very magazine. Now, his dreams are all but over.
The plan, preposterous in its execution, is straightforward to explain. Rather than launch rockets vertically from traditional launchpads, it would instead drop them horizontally, mid-flight from the wing of a repurposed 747-400. It worked because of the Jumbo Jet’s little-known ability to carry a fifth engine, enabling it to handle the extra load. The idea was especially smart because it meant satellites could be launched from almost any airport, anywhere. Just like that, I wrote, space could be the preserve of all countries – not just those with the money and geography to support it.
After the satellites are fitted underneath the rocket’s nose – or fairing – the projectile is attached underneath the left wing of the 747. The aircraft takes off and cruises upwards to its launch position at around 35,000 feet before the first pilot pulls up to a 30° angle to give the aircraft a bit of pitch. “The other pilot, at the right moment, pushes a button on the panel of the cockpit to release the rocket, which drops – or glides – for about four or five seconds until it’s safely able to start its engines,” explained Hart. Seconds afterwards, the 747 banks right to stay clear of the departing rocket, which continues on to steer its payloads safely into orbit. “The idea of a new technology for space launch was just something I couldn’t leave behind.”
When we spoke, Virgin Orbit had come off a perfect run of four successful missions in a row, with only its initial test flight failing two years previously. However, those all took off from its base in the Mojave Desert in California. The real money was in proving the system could be transported to any airport worldwide. Its much-hyped launch in Cornwall, England, was set to act as a global showcase for the technology, as well as the UK’s first-ever rocket launch from home soil. The area’s local council alone pumped in more than $10 million to turn its simple runway into a spaceport, with a bespoke cleanroom built to store the satellites safely. Pre-launch, plans were already tentatively in place to expand into Japan, Brazil, Poland, South Korea and, significantly, Toowoomba in Queensland. “There are almost 80 space agencies right now,” said Hart. “There are maybe slightly more than 10 countries that can fly to space. There’s huge potential. We see space travel or transportation becoming a reality in each major area of the globe.”
On the evening of 9 January – launch day – more than 2,000 Brits braved the bitter weather to watch the 747, named Cosmic Girl, take off. The festival atmosphere included a silent disco, food trucks and bars, with some reports even claiming that tickets sold out faster than Glastonbury. Revellers whooped and cheered when Virgin Orbit declared the plane had reached its drop-off point over the Atlantic Ocean and successfully fired its rocket. Soon afterwards, a now infamous tweet hailed the mission as a success, claiming the rocket had reached orbit and was starting to coast around the Earth. Then, out of nowhere – disaster. Less than half an hour later, in a pique of PR doublespeak, Orbit deleted its original post and tweeted, “We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.” Crowds were seen to swiftly turn and head for the car park to make their way home.
Aside from the terrible headlines, the botched launch lost all nine payloads on board, including those from high-profile customers such as the UK’s Ministry of Defence. A later investigation agonisingly revealed a simple fuel filter dislodged mid-launch. “This is like a $100 part that took us out,” said Hart. Just three months later, the company filed for bankruptcy protection after Richard Branson refused to pump more money into the project to save it, and other investors backed out at the last minute. The messy end saw emails and phone calls from Hart to his employees leaked to US news agencies, while the company’s chief operating officer launched an extraordinary broadside against Hart in an all-staffer email. Tony Gingiss told employees they “simply did not have the leadership” and wrote, “I want to say something to you that you have not heard from the person who should be saying it, so I will: I’m sorry, and I apologise.”
All of which got me thinking: did I drink the Virgin Orbit Kool-Aid, seduced by Hart’s personal touch? Or were they just unlucky victims of misfortune? To find out more, I spoke to Michael Jones, the executive chairman of spaceport business Equatorial Launch Australia. Arguably the country’s most successful space business, ELA flawlessly launched three NASA rockets into space last year in a remote part of the Northern Territory. Jones has a unique insight into the blurring worlds of aviation and space, given he was previously the founder and CEO of Rex, a senior executive at Virgin Australia and even had a spell working at NASA’s legendary Ames Research Facility in Silicon Valley. Why, I ask, is space always so tough?
“There’s no single answer to why it’s hard because it’s an amalgamation of many different things,” he says. “Firstly, nothing you do in space is cheap, so the capital requirements are hard. But so is the pure physics of what you’re doing: you’re trying to overcome God’s gravity by accelerating to between 24 and 28,000 kilometres an hour to obtain orbital velocity. You’re trying to have the aerodynamic capacity to both maximise your payload and minimise your structure while the systems you’re using are all remotely operated. There are just so many points of potential failure.”
Orbit is hardly alone in watching a recent launch go spectacularly wrong. In October, British space firm Skyrora saw its rocket travel a paltry 500m before plopping into the sea from its mobile spaceport in Iceland, while ABL Space Systems fared even worse in January, as its rocket crashed into its spaceport’s own infrastructure in Alaska. Even the big boys aren’t immune, with SpaceX’s monstrous Starship rocket – designed to one day take humans to Mars – falling back to Earth after three minutes in April. Even so, Elon Musk hailed the launch as a success, with his team cheering on its demise as a better-than-expected performance. One team member was even reported to have sprayed a bottle of champagne at the time.
Nonetheless, it’s also true that it tends to be the more innovative and eye-catching new technologies that are the ones going wrong. While ELA runs the Spaceport – rather than the rockets themselves – Jones’ team has preferred collaborating with traditional blast-off systems. “NASA has been doing this for 75 years,” he says. “It did a lot of testing after the Second World War in aerodynamics and the structures of aeroplanes, creating huge volumes of data. A lot of this work has been done. There are no new aerodynamic shapes that can be used for better efficiency – not a lot has changed.”
In essence, he hints many businesses are trying to be too clever by half. “It’s the current trend that everyone wants to be a disruptor because they want to create a point of difference. But if you look at the success ratios, the companies using the well-trodden paths, methodologies and propellants seem to be winning in the technological space race. We regularly go to launch companies where it’s a very Gen Z-heavy environment, staffed by people who have either worked at SpaceX or another rocket company or it’s their first job out of university. They’re smart as, but their experience is very small.”
Too many of those getting involved in the business, he adds, simply don’t appreciate how hard it is to pull off. “We don’t want to make grandiose claims,” he says. “These people aspiring to have other launch sites, well, good luck to them. I just wish they wouldn’t be so overt with their dreams and were more overt about their achievements.”
It’s that inherent riskiness that spooks investors down the track, despite being dazzled early on by the innovation. Delve into Orbit’s history and its separation from parent company Virgin Galactic was a minor disaster. It was initially listed via what’s known as a ‘Special Purpose Acquisition Company’ – a once trendy investment vehicle that lets backers pull out of deals before the transaction’s completion. It meant Orbit went from hoping to raise $560 million to receiving just $100 million, with 82 per cent of shareholders withdrawing support. It meant Branson had to pour more money in to keep the company afloat.
And as the operation progressed, the figures weren’t adding up. One estimate said Orbit was effectively burning through $70 million in cash to generate $44 million in sales. The company wasn’t launching enough and was losing business to the more traditional blast-offs undertaken by SpaceX’s reusable rockets. Cornwall was, therefore, a monumental gamble. Get it right, and it would open the door to sales from a string of global clients. But its demise, coupled with higher interest rates, did precisely the opposite.
This won’t have come as news to Jones. With the stakes so high and the potential for reputational damage so great, ELA internally rates every major rocket company worldwide to deduce who could be safe collaborators. “We track about 76 rocket companies globally,” he reveals. “That’s a mixture of vertical, which is about 90 per cent of the market, and horizontal, which is a further 7 per cent. I think about 25 of those are ‘real’. And by that, I mean real in their financial capacity, technology and having a business plan for a successful solution.” Of the 25 remaining in his system, he predicts only 11 will survive. “Space is hard, and that’s a very high attrition rate. It’s not necessarily because people don’t have the right idea, but that there are significant challenges.”
Drill down into the unique advantages Orbit promised to bring, and you’ll find huge holes that they don’t mention, too. The central selling point, for example, was to turn any airport into a spaceport, but that still involves a world of red tape and technical challenges that occur even without a launchpad. Jones points out that ELA had to create the infrastructure for their site, secure the funding, and tick all the safety, compliance and regulatory boxes. Despite being funded by the local government, the Cornwall site faced considerable delays in getting its sign-off, pushing its launch back around six months.
In fact, the central premise of launching rockets ‘horizontally’ is arguably more fraught with risk than blasting it off traditionally. “If you launch vertically and it doesn’t ignite, well, it’s just sitting there,” says Jones. But because Orbit has to release the rocket before it can power it up – so it doesn’t blow up the 747 – it means any minor defect will see the payloads fall into the sea. “You’ve dropped a bomb!” he jokes. “There is a lot of complexity that doesn’t appear to be there. It sounds great, but it’s a challenging thing they’re doing.” Delve back into Orbit’s history, and it was anything but simple. Virgin Galactic spent nearly two decades trying to perfect the technology – despite NASA trying it out in the 50s and effectively rejecting the idea as unworkable.
As Australian Aviation goes to print, Virgin Orbit has told prospective investors they have until mid-May to make a formal bid. But, quietly, Hart has put a plan in place to bring the idea back from the dead just in case they make it. The company’s remaining skeleton crew of 100 employees spent months in Mojave recreating the failed launch on the ground, and believe its redesigned fuel filter will stay put in future. A takeover, meanwhile, would see its organisation bounce back to employing more than 250 staff with a launch already planned for later this year in the desert. Discussions, he revealed, are already underway to one day return to Cornwall.
On 3 March – his birthday – Hart dialled into a grilling by British MPs into the January failure. It was the middle of the night, his time, at his home in California. What would it take to try again, he was asked?
“The launch starts with the payload in the satellite, so there are options there. There are government and commercial satellites that are candidates, and there are some ideas about university satellites to spur education. The regulatory framework needs to be looked at, and hopefully, we can work together to improve the process. Those are the two key pieces.
“Then my team looks at me and says, ‘When are we going to finish this?’ In other words, let’s get to work.”