Virgin Orbit-uary: Beardy Branson's satellite launch biz shutters
Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch, and Vast pick at the corpse
Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit has sold all its assets just months after a failed attempt at what would have been first ever satellite launch from UK soil.
It's a sad end to months of scrambling to secure funding to keep the operation whole. It also means the company can't sell it out of bankruptcy protection to an owner who might revive it.
Up until just weeks ago, CEO Dan Hart was hoping to sell the whole caboodle to one player and also retain its few remaining employees – 85 percent of the staffers were laid off in March. Earlier this month, it even said it was "progressing with the final integration of the next rocket toward launch... simultaneous to the sale process."
Spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017, Virgin Orbit went public in 2021 and was already burning cash when its first satellite launch from the UK failed spectacularly in January after taking off from Cornwall. (Quibblers might have something to say about which bit of the Irish Sea the 747 was flying over when it actually released the rocket. The exact location was never disclosed.) However, while Launcher One did leave Earth's atmosphere, it never made it to low Earth orbit with its payload, a mix of civil and military satellites, due to an "anomaly" which is still being investigated.
Now fresh filings with the federal bankruptcy court in Delaware show that New Zealand's Rocket Lab has snapped up the lease to Virgin Orbit's 144,000+ square foot headquarters and manufacturing complex in Long Beach, California, along with its main factory – which is sited on the premises – and other "machinery and equipment" for $16.118 million.
The Peter Beck-led outfit said it would use the assets to bolster Rocket Lab's existing production, manufacturing, and test grunt and further advance work on its larger launch vehicle, Neutron. In a press release emitted last night, Rocket Lab made sure to mention it would not be integrating Virgin Orbit's launch system "within its existing launch services." Ouch!
Fellow horizontal launch fan Stratolaunch, meanwhile, will buy Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 aircraft, and some "related equipment" for $17 million. That's the same price announced from the "stalking horse" bid agreement filed on May 16.
Virgin Orbit only ever operated one 747, a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400, the same aircraft that carried its last payload from Newquay Airport in Cornwall on that fateful January mission.
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Virgin Orbit had originally planned to buy more 747s for its LauncherOne program, with the first to arrive in 2024, in the hopes of increasing operations for the US Space Force as well as customers abroad. The company even signed a contract for the delivery of a new 747-400. However, the space firm never turned a profit despite lucrative deals with the US government as well as its private payload biz.
According to yesterday's filing [PDF], space station hopeful Vast's Launcher Inc has acquired Virgin Orbit's digs in Mojave, California, a bundle which includes the lease, machinery, equipment, and inventory for $2.7 million.
Some industrial kit made by McGowen Machinery & Equipment was sold to a fourth player, a liquidation outfit called Inliper, for $650,000. Altogether, the asset auction netted $36 million.
Confirming it would cease operations after the hearing to seek court approval for the four transactions today, the company said in a statement: "As Virgin Orbit embarks on this path, the management and employees would like to extend their heartfelt gratitude to all stakeholders, including customers, partners, investors, and employees, for their support and dedication over the years. It is through their collective efforts that the Company has been able to achieve significant milestones and make lasting contributions to the advancement of satellite launch in the United States and the United Kingdom."
At the risk of repeating ourselves, space is hard. Vale, Virgin Orbit. ®