Virgin Orbit still expects to fly twice a month in 2020 despite delayed test campaign

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PARIS — Virgin Orbit says it will perform 24 missions with its LauncherOne small-satellite booster in 2020 despite pushing intitial test flights into 2018.

Dan Hart
Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit, before being spun off from human spaceflight-focused Virgin Galactic in March, had set out to complete around three test flights of LauncherOne before ramping up for commercial operations.

Dan Hart, who was Virgin Orbit’s president in March and promoted to CEO in June, took responsibility for the delay.

“I came in about six months ago to the team and I did make a few changes in our test program to add a little more hardware, and that did push out the flight tests, but we will get into flight tests in the early part of 2018; we’ll get into production,” he said Sept. 12 during a panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here. “That gives us plenty of ramp-up time to get to the 24-level in 2020.”

Hart said Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach, California, factory is designed to support that rapid launch cadence. The company has all the necessary equipment, he said, and is in the final stages of ramping up personnel to accommodate that volume of launchers.

As an air-launched rocket, LauncherOne can avoid many of the weather delays that confound ground-based launch campaigns.

“We’ll get up into flight in the first part of 2018, and then we will be ramping up quickly. We are going into commercial operation next year, and then doubling our launch rate in 2019, and doubling again in 2020,” he said, adding that the company “will have customers on flights number two and three.”

Hart said Virgin Orbit completed the assembly of the first LauncherOne rocket a few weeks ago, which will be used for “tanking tests and stage firings” in Mojave, California.

The Mojave Spaceport is the first location for LauncherOne missions, though Hart stressed the rocket’s air-launch design from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 makes it launchable from numerous locations. That aircraft, known as Cosmic Girl, arrived in Mojave roughly six weeks ago, he said.

LauncherOne is a two-stage liquid oxygen/kerosene vehicle designed to carry up to 300 kilograms to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. Virgin Orbit customers for LauncherOne include NASA, Sky and Space Global, and OneWeb.