Virgin Orbit officially shutters its space launch operations

In the end, only four of its six attempts ended with satellites in orbit.

Henry Nicholls / reuters

Virgin Orbit’s days of slinging satellites into space aboard aircraft-launched rockets have come to an end Thursday. After six years in business, Virgin’s satellite launch subsidiary has announced via SEC filing that it does not have the funding to continue operations and will be shuttering for “the foreseeable future,” per CNBC. Nearly 90 percent of Virgin Orbit’s employees — 675 people in total — will be laid off immediately.

Virgin Orbit was founded in 2017 for the purpose of developing and commercializing LauncherOne, a satellite launch system fitted under a modified 747 airliner, dubbed Cosmic Girl. The system was designed to put 500 pounds of cubesats into Low Earth Orbit by firing them in a rocket from said airliner flying at an altitude of 30,000 - 50,000 feet. Despite a string of early successes — both in terms of development milestones and expanding service contracts with the UK military, LauncherOne’s first official test in May of 2020 failed to deliver its simulated payload into orbit.

A second attempt the following January in 2022 however was a success with the launch of 10 NASA cube sats into LEO, as was Virgin Orbit’s first commercial satellite launch that June. It successfully sent seven more satellites into orbit in January 2022 and quietly launched Space Force assets that July.

In all, Virgin Orbit made six total flights between 2020 and 2023, only four successfully. The most recent attempt was dubbed the Start Me Up event and was supposed to mark the first commercial space launch from UK soil. Despite the rocket successfully separating from its parent aircraft, an upper stage “anomaly” prevented the rocket’s payload from entering orbit. It was later determined that a $100 fuel filter had failed and resulted in the fault.

As TechCrunch points out, Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson, “threw upwards of $55 million to the sinking space company,” in recent months but Start Me Up’s embarrassing failure turned out to be the final straw. On March 16th, Virgin Orbit announced an “operational pause” and worker furlough for its roughly 750 employees as company leadership scrambled to find new funding sources. The company extended the furlough two weeks later and called it quits on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to secure the funding to provide a clear path for this company,” Virgin CEO Dan Hart said in an all-hands call obtained by CNBC. “We have no choice but to implement immediate, dramatic and extremely painful changes.”

Impacted employees will reportedly receive severance packages, according to Hart, including a cash payment, continued benefits and a “direct pipeline” to Virgin Galactic’s hiring department. Virgin Orbit’s two top executives will also receive “golden parachute” severances which were approved by the company’s board, conveniently, back in mid-March right when the furloughs first took effect.