The idea was brilliant, but the implementation did not convince. Virgin Orbit, a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s group, wanted to market satellite launches into low orbit via a small rocket attached under a Boeing 747. It filed for bankruptcy on April 4, days after laying off 85% of its workforce. (i.e. 675 employees out of 750), probably for sale. The company was valued at $243 million, but in September 2022 had a debt of $153 million.
It was the second launch failure in January 2023 that seems to have sealed the fate of Virgin Orbit. The rocket had successfully separated from the modified Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 and the engine firing had taken place, but it had not reached the planned orbit and the 9 nanosatellites placed in its fairing had been lost. The Virgin subsidiary thus stops its operations after 6 shots, including 2 failures, and 33 satellites successfully put into orbit.
The 21-meter LauncherOne rocket, however, has many advantages, including unparalleled flexibility. “I can launch a satellite in a week”, rejoiced Richard Branson in 2019. Faced with anti-satellite weapons and the new realities of space warfare, the Pentagon is precisely seeking to equip itself with agile and rapid launch means.