pristine orbit started as a Richard Branson program Galactic Virgo in 2012, before being spun off into a separate company five years later.
In the private space race, Virgin Orbit has argued that its method of launching its rockets – known as “air launch” – is more flexible than the traditional launch pads used by competitors like rocket lab, astra and SpaceX.
The company employed a Boeing 747 jet he called “Cosmic Girl” to carry his LauncherOne rocket to about 35,000 feet before jettisoning it.
From there, the rocket would ignite its engines and blast off into space.
“By launching from an airplane, Virgin could take off from almost any airport in the world and turn those airports into spaceports,” said Caleb Henry, research director at Quilty Analytics.
Henry noted that Virgin Orbit’s latest launch was from the UK and the company was in talks for a launch in Japan and Brazil.
“They offered different countries the ability to have, in a sense, sovereign launch capability, because the rocket would take off from their home soil,” Henry said.
But Virgin Orbit has experienced delays. The company originally hoped to launch its first mission in 2018, but did not lift off until May 2020. The demonstration mission failed shortly after the rocket’s launch. In total, the company launched six missions, four of which succeeded and two of which failed, the last of which was in January.
Virgin Orbit’s biggest deal was a 39-launch deal signed with satellite maker OneWeb in 2015. OneWeb eventually pulled out of the deal without performing a single launch.
“A challenge for the business, and for any launch company, is to have a primary customer, someone you can rely on to consistently buy a decent number of launches,” Henry said. “Virgin Orbit had no primary customer.”
In late March, Virgin Orbit said it was laying off the majority of its workforce and ceasing operations “for the foreseeable future” after failing to secure a lifeline. A few days later, the company filed for bankruptcy.
Watch the video to learn more about what led to Virgin Orbit’s collapse.