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Virgin Orbit lays off 85% of staff as funding deal falters

Expenses slashed as hopes dashed for UK space pioneer

Virgin Orbit — the UK’s big hope for space launches — looks set to suspend operations indefinitely, cutting the majority of its staff and keeping 15 percent as it seeks eleventh hour funding.

In a note to investors [PDF], Virign Orbit announced a workforce reduction of approximately 675 employees, in a plan to “reduce expenses in light of the Company's inability to secure meaningful funding.”

Reports suggest Virgin Orbit could continue in a shell form while chief executive Dan Hart makes last-minute attempts to secure funding. Talks have continued with at least one financial investor in recent days, the Financial Times said.

Last week, SpaceX and OpenAI backing venture capitalist Matthew Brown, of Matthew Brown Companies, said he was in talks with the UK space biz. A leaked term sheet seen by Reuters had suggested funding of $200 million might be available. That now appears to have failed to materialize. Earlier, the business ended all operations to "conserve capital" while it looked for funding to stave off bankruptcy, reportedly treating its staff to an unpaid furlough.

The UK government and space industry had high hopes for Virgin Orbit as part of a wider industrial strategy based on space engineering and launch capability.

In July last year, the country's science minister George Freeman congratulated Virgin Orbit on a successful US mission. “It’s incredible to see Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne in action before they head to Spaceport Cornwall. We are in a strong position to capitalize on the growing global demand for small satellite launch and to do so in a way that will keep space and our planet sustainable for future generations,” he said.

But that optimism was soon met with the harsh reality of space engineering. To paraphrase countless space business folks and those who work on the tech: "Space is hard."

In January, Virgin Orbit, failed in an attempt to launch a satellite into orbit from the underbelly of a 747 jet which had taken off from Newquay Airport, the aerospace locus for the seaside town otherwise known as a Spaceport Cornwall.

The aircraft named Cosmic Girl took off as planned to reach 35,000 feet above the Irish Sea, but while the rocket LauncherOne detached as planned and reached space, it did not secure the intended orbit for its payload. ®

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