Virgin Orbit closes after selling assets in bankruptcy auction


The modified Boeing 747 plane, named “Cosmic Girl”, will take off from Spaceport Cornwall in the southwest of England.

Hugh Hastings/Stringer/Getty Images

Bankrupt rocket company Virgin Orbit is closing after selling its facility leases and equipment to a trio of aerospace companies at an auction, the company confirmed on Tuesday.

“As Virgin Orbit embarks on this path, management and employees would like to express their deep appreciation to all stakeholders,” the company said in a statement.

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“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will be forever remembered. Its breakthrough technologies, relentless pursuit of excellence and unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of air launch have left an indelible mark on the world. ‘industry,’ the company added.

Yarn of Galactic Virgo in 2017 by founder Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit reached rarefied air by performing multiple missions. But difficulty raising funds and slow execution drove the once multi-billion dollar company into bankruptcy and ultimately closure.

Sold in pieces

The rocket for the company’s second demonstration mission is undergoing final assembly at its factory in Long Beach, California.

pristine orbit

Monday’s bidding is about $36 million in total. The approximately six Virgin Orbit rockets that were in various stages of manufacturing assembly, and its intellectual property, have yet to be sold, a Virgin Orbit spokesperson confirmed.

rocket lab successfully bid $16.1 million for the company’s headquarters in Long Beach, Calif., which measures approximately 140,000 square feet, the spokesperson said. Although founded in New Zealand, Rocket Lab was already a neighbor of Virgin Orbit, with headquarters and facilities in the Long Beach area. Additionally, the Rocket Lab purchase includes assets such as 3D printers and a specialized tank welding machine.

Stratolaunch has won its $17 million “hunting horse” bid for Virgin Orbit’s 747 jet. A spokesperson for Stratolaunch, in a statement to CNBC, said the company is “continuously evaluating ways to increase our ability to meet the imperative to test hypersonic technologies via forward flight demonstrations.”

“We will share more information about the sale as it becomes available,” Stratolaunch noted.

Earlier in the bankruptcy process, Virgin Orbit accepted the terms of Stratolaunch’s offer to buy the 747 “Cosmic Girl” jet and other aviation assets. Stratolaunch developed its own airborne system, the world’s largest aircraft called “Roc”, as a platform for hypersonic flight testing.

Launcher, a subsidiary of Vast Space, is buying the company’s facilities in Mojave, Calif., along with some machinery, equipment and inventory, for $2.7 million. Virgin Orbit’s Mojave leases include infrastructure such as rocket engine test beds and an aircraft hangar.

A company in liquidation, Inliper, buys the company’s office equipment for $650,000.

Rocket Lab and Launcher did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The bankruptcy court must approve the sales in a hearing Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET.

What went wrong

Virgin Orbit was spun off from Branson’s space tourism company after a team saw the potential of using an airplane as a platform to launch satellites. While “air launch” satellites weren’t a new idea for Virgin Orbit, the company aimed to do so faster and more cheaply than in previous efforts.

It became one of the few American rocket companies to successfully reach orbit with a privately developed launch vehicle. It has launched six missions since 2020 – with four successes and two failures – through an ambitious and technically difficult process known as “air launch”, with a system that uses a modified 747 jet to drop a rocket in midair and send small satellites into space.

The company flew most of its missions from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, except for one that took off from the UK. This January launch from the UK was also its last.

In March, CNBC reported that the company will suspend operations and lay off nearly all of its workforce as it grows increasingly desperate to find a lifeline. But those financial talks fell through, with the company laying off most of its workforce before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 4.

Former Virgin Orbit COO Tony Gingiss, in a company-wide email sent in April, issued an apology to company employees, CNBC reported. Gingiss applauded Virgin Orbit’s workforce for “being part of something bold, challenging and fulfilling”, but said employees “just didn’t have the leadership or the opportunity to demonstrate to the world what you can fully do and how this product could be a lasting force in the market.”

“You deserved better than that!” Gingiss wrote.

While Virgin Orbit aimed to find a wholesale buyer through the bankruptcy process to keep the company’s assets and intellectual property intact, the company was unable to do so, resulting in leads to Monday’s auction.

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