Virgin Orbit: The Rise and Fall of Branson’s Rocket Dream

Virgin Orbit’s ambitious journey in the realm of space exploration has come to an abrupt end following a significant mission failure and subsequent financial struggles. The rocket company, founded by Sir Richard Branson, recently announced its closure after pausing operations in a bid to revive its financial standing. In an effort to stay afloat, Virgin Orbit resorted to selling off its assets, including its converted jet named Cosmic Girl and a majority of its California headquarters.

The company’s first-ever satellite mission in the UK, which aimed to propel the nation into the global space industry, faced a setback earlier this year. Named Start Me Up after the iconic 1981 Rolling Stones song, the mission fell short of achieving its target orbit due to an anomaly during the initial burn. This setback dealt a severe blow to Sir Richard Branson’s space dreams.

Subsequently, Virgin Orbit temporarily halted all operations in an attempt to address its financial woes. The company laid off a significant number of employees during this tumultuous period. It is worth noting that Sir Richard himself suffered substantial losses, with an estimated personal loss of £1.5 billion due to the pandemic’s impact on his airline and leisure businesses. Despite these setbacks, he has managed to retain his billionaire status, with a net worth of £2.4 billion according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List.

Virgin Orbit’s inability to secure long-term funding ultimately led to its decision to file for bankruptcy protection in the United States. In the wake of this development, Rocket Lab, a rival start-up, acquired most of Virgin Orbit’s California headquarters and other assets. Furthermore, Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 plane, which had been converted for satellite launches, was also sold off. The total sum of these asset sales was $36.4 million (£29.4 million).

The failure of Virgin Orbit’s venture is a poignant reminder of the challenges and risks associated with the space industry. The company, founded in 2017, struggled to turn a profit during its time as a public entity. The impact of the mission failure and subsequent financial woes extends beyond the company itself. Spaceport Cornwall, the UK’s first licensed spaceport, was heavily reliant on Virgin Orbit as a key customer. With the company’s demise, the future of Spaceport Cornwall hangs in the balance. However, the Cornwall team remains optimistic, actively exploring alternative launch partnerships with companies like Sierra Space, as they continue to foster the growth of a space cluster in the South West.

While the closure of Virgin Orbit poses a setback for the UK’s space ambitions, it is not the end of the country’s journey in this domain. SaxaVord Spaceport, located on the Shetland island of Unst, has taken the lead in vertical launches, where rockets are launched skywards from a pad. SaxaVord has collaborated with several firms, including Rocket Factory Augsburg from Germany, and plans to conduct engine testing in Shetland later this year. Moreover, Scotland has emerged as a significant player in the space industry, with additional spaceports planned in Sutherland and Benbecula.

The demise of Virgin Orbit serves as a stark reminder of the challenges inherent in the race to space, and there may be more failures along the way. However, the closure of the company does not signify the end of the UK’s space aspirations. The country remains determined to forge ahead, leveraging its strengths and collaborating with various stakeholders to establish a significant presence in the ever-evolving space sector.

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