Launching a revolution
The 747 was meant to be finished. But Virgin Orbit’s mind-boggling plan to fix rockets to its wing could not just give the Queen of the Skies a fitting send-off but change the space business. The company’s CEO, Dan Hart, tells Adam Thorn how he did it.
Ask Dan Hart how he caught the space bug, and he tells you much the same story as everyone else I’ve spoken to. “It might have had something to do with staying up late one summer evening and watching the first humans lay their feet on the moon.” Hart was just eight then, but that passion eventually parlayed into a monster 34-year stint at Boeing, where he worked with the US government, and NASA, on small satellite systems. Still, he was a company man. But one day in 2017, he took a call out of the blue from the Virgin Group, and later, Richard Branson himself, asking if he fancied blasting out of his comfort zone to helm a project that still today seems utterly preposterous.
Virgin Galactic had spent two decades working on its plans to send tourists into space but had also been quietly experimenting with new tech that would enable rockets to launch not from traditional ground stations – but aircraft. It wasn’t a new concept – NASA was trying it from underneath B-50s back in the 50s – but nobody had ever nailed its execution. The back-to-the-future idea was canny because it meant satellites could be launched from almost any airport, anywhere. Just like that, space would be the preserve of all countries – not just those with the money and geography to support it.
The breakthrough came when Virgin realised the solution was in their hangar all along. Boeing 747s – a once mainstay of Virgin Atlantic’s fleet – have a little-known capacity to attach a fifth engine, enabling it to carry a rocket. Plus, with the aircraft being retired on mass, the jumbo jet could be bought and operated cheaply, without pilots needing to learn how to fly a new type of space vehicle, with all the messy licences that would incur. “The idea of a new technology for space launch was just something I couldn’t leave behind,” enthuses Hart, now CEO.
It really is as simple as that. After the satellites are fitted underneath the rocket’s nose – or fairing – the projectile is attached underneath the left wing of the 747-400. The aircraft takes off and cruises upwards to its launch position at around 35,000 feet. “The pilot then pulls up on the 747 to a 30° angle because we want the rocket facing the right direction, and we want a bit of upward pitch,” explains Hart. “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.” Seconds afterwards, the 747 banks right to stay clear of the rocket’s path.
The 747 is only minimally modified. In fact, the first Jumbo Virgin is using, now named Cosmic Girl, enjoyed a 14-year career with Atlantic as G-VWOW, where it carried more than two million passengers, mainly from London to New York. The team stripped out the cabin interiors of the lower deck and fixed a ‘launch pylon’ on the secret engine mount. (Some trivia: Qantas last lugged a fifth, six-tonne Rolls Royce engine on the left wing in 2016, but just for spares.) Perfecting the technique, says Hart, took years. “It’s not an easy undertaking. It’s a rather large piece of baggage.”
The real challenge was designing a rocket able to be dropped and ignited at just the right time – like a firework in reverse. The LauncherOne was developed and trialled separately on the ground for years. The result is what in the space business is known as a ‘two-stage’ launch vehicle. The first ignition, from ‘NewtonThree’, accelerates the 20-metre-long projectile to 8,000 miles per hour. Once it reaches around 745 miles above the earth’s surface, and its fuel is spent, it detaches from the top half of the rocket. Finally, a second, smaller blast from NewtonFour, kicks off a series of burns to circularise its orbit, before the nose pops open, and the satellites are gently steered towards their final resting place. Atmospheric drag will eventually pull the remnants of the rocket down to earth, where it will safely burn up into the atmosphere.
That we’re even having this conversation speaks to the “Screw It, Let’s Do It” mentality of the whole operation. I speculatively approached Virgin Orbit in faint hope the business may throw me the bone of a lowly spokesman. Instead, I’m joined by the chief executive via Zoom, live from his office in LA. He looks half his 61 years on screen and talks with the giddy rush of that boy who watched Neil Armstrong on TV. The opportunities for the whole sector, he explains, are limitless.
“It’s amazing! 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. 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! When I was in college, had I gone to my advisor and said, ‘I want to build a satellite’, he would have tapped me on the top of my head and said, ‘That’s a nice idea. Why don’t you go along and think of something else?’ It’s earth-shattering what’s happening. In other words, the space sector is just at the right point to get the Branson treatment. In 2012, for example, just 50 small satellites were put into space. Last year, it was 1,700 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The 747 plan is savvy because it fixes many problems even SpaceX can’t overcome. Rocket launches are often cancelled – or scrubbed – due to bad weather, but that’s not an issue when you’re above the clouds. Getting new sites off the ground is hard because traditional launch pads must be near the sea, where animals live. And then there’s the absurd cost of it all. Since the beginning, space has only been the preserve of those who can throw silly money at it – mainly the US, Russia and China.
“With our technology, we can take any airport and, overnight, it can become a spaceport. It’s a very attractive way to achieve launch without rebuilding Cape Canaveral. And from a systems perspective, the same aircraft and rocket can operate from anywhere.
Environmentally, it’s a different arena because ground launch rockets have traditionally launched from wildlife preserves because you want to be away from populated areas. Blasting off is not good for animals because you put a lot of soot and a huge acoustic wave into the area.” All of that is not considering that the aircraft is doing half the grunt work, hauling the rocket to 35,000 feet and the better part of Mach 1.
“The 747 is a wonderful reusable first stage. It’s the most reusable first stage you can have. Ours has flown well over 8,000 times now.”
It’s been a long time coming. While the nut of the idea was mapped out in 2007 as part of Virgin Galactic, it wasn’t until 2020 that its first maiden flight took place. After an initial failure – caused by a break in a propellant feed line – the system has worked smoothly on all its subsequent four missions. Today, Virgin Orbit is its own company, separate from Galactic, and employs more than 600 people from its base in Long Beach, California. So confident is the team that two more orders have been placed for modified 747s, with delivery expected next year. (Virgin Atlantic, ironically, parted ways with its fleet in 2020.) “People come to the space business with the idea of doing something big and unique and different and moving forward and changing the world. And so, you do get a bit of a spirit that way. We primarily attract those kinds of people and those from other industries who have often thought, ‘How do I change the world?”
As this issue goes to print, Virgin Orbit is days away from its breakthrough moment. Cosmic Girl will imminently conduct its first international launch from leafy Cornwall in the UK’s southwest. It’s an even bigger deal for the UK, which has never launched a rocket from home soil despite its booming local space industry. (Embarrassingly for the Poms, only one British probe has ever blasted off into space from a homemade rocket – and that was in Woomera, Australia, in 1971.) Boris Johnson, then PM, said earlier this year that launches meant the country could become “Galactic Britain” after years of remaining “earthbound”. It’s set to be a boon, too, for the UK’s stuttering economy. Developing the new spaceport cost just $35 million but is predicted to generate $425 million in revenue for the region.
Hart says that he sees Cornwall as opening the door for the business, allowing it to expand into other countries rapidly. Already, Japan, Brazil, Poland and South Korea have shown interest in 747 launches. “There are almost 80 space agencies right now. 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.” In the UK alone, the plan would see eight 747 launches each year carrying satellites that range from shoebox size to those with the dimensions of a washing machine. I didn’t know when we chatted that talks were also quietly underway to bring the launches to Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport. A later announcement confirmed a test launch in 2024 and regular blast-offs to occur within three years.
Still, the 747 faces stiff competition as traditional small rockets get more innovative and cheaper. In winter, three NASA rockets blasted off from the Northern Territory; a commercial launch site is semi-operational at Whalers Way in South Australia; while Queensland’s Gilmour Space Technologies is building Australia’s first genuinely homegrown rocket. At the moment, Virgin Orbit feels outside somewhat outside the gang with its different approach. I ask Hart, is the business not concerned that rival aircraft launchers could emerge? “We put a whole lot of effort into the development. There are a few folks in that aspirational mode, some of whom have unique aircraft concepts. But I would say we’re years ahead of anybody out there. I think, eventually, others will probably come. But by then, we will be launching regularly.”
Yet however rockets launch, Hart believes we’re just at the beginning of an aerospace revolution. “There was an oil spill off of Huntington Beach two years ago, and it took them days to find it. With satellites, they can detect in hours. Wildfires can be fought better. Businesses can better understand their supply chain, their distribution, and the health of their infrastructure. There is so much we can do as we connect more of the world to this incredible resource that’s more accessible.
“We’ve only just got started.”