To infinity and ... just over the Atlantic

Soul searching in the wake of Virgin Orbit failure

The UK Space Agency has published a "Lessons Learned" report after the failure of the first orbital launch attempt from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay on the south west coast of England.

The report, which does not use the word "failure," describes the mission in which Virgin Orbit's rocket, LauncherOne, was launched from a modified Boeing 747 dubbed Cosmic Girl.

According to the report: "This historic event demonstrated the UK's ability to launch, safely, legally and with the appropriate coordination across government."

Launch, yes. Make it to orbit, no.

While Cosmic Girl did take off from Cornwall and dropped the rocket over the Atlantic Ocean as planned, the second stage engine did not work as intended, and the payload was lost.

A few months later, Virgin Orbit ceased operations, and its assets were sold off. The failed first orbital launch from the UK would also be Virgin Orbit's last.

Still, there were some lessons to be learned by the UK government, not least around reducing administrative efforts and costs in licensing, as well as sharing knowledge and guidance regarding the process.

There were other lessons around insurance and liability too. "Operators and satellite providers repeatedly raised concerns over liabilities and insurance being disproportionate, burdensome, and an impediment to progress towards launch. To counter this, Government should consider a variable Third-Party Liability (TPL) insurance approach for satellite operations and should explore options to set an upper flat rate cap for launch operator insurance and liability."

Other themes in the report concern communication, decision-making and escalation protocols, and clarifying roles and responsibilities.

The clock is ticking on the recommendations. Alongside the report, the UK Space Agency also announced funding for launches from the SaxaVord and Sutherland spaceports.

On December 17, SaxaVord became the UK's first licensed vertical launch spaceport. The hope is that sub-orbital launches might start from 2024 with orbital launches following. The license permits up to 30 launches per year.

Launching rockets is hard. As well as Virgin Orbit's incident, Rocket Lab – another small satellite launcher – suffered problems of its own earlier this year before successfully returning to flight on December 15.

Blue Origin has also struggled after its sub-orbital New Shepard suffered a failure in 2022. A return to flight on December 18, 2023, had to be scrubbed due to ground system issues. ®

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