Today at Long Beach Airport stands a 747 aircraft with a rocket under its wing.
For the first time ever, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has been integrated with its carrier aircraft, marking a major milestone on the path to the innovative small satellite launch service’s first space shot. The successful operation capped off a banner day of firsts on Wednesday for the company at its Long Beach, Calif. base.

The LauncherOne rocket stands out from the pack in part by virtue of being air launched. Rather than lifting off from a launch pad on the ground like most traditional rockets, LauncherOne is instead first carried aloft by a customized 747-400 aircraft dubbed “Cosmic Girl,” which was modified explicitly for the purpose of serving as a flying launch site.

By beginning each flight to space this way, Virgin Orbit’s system becomes the world’s first concierge launch service, with each mission totally tailored to that customer’s specific needs for launch location and orbital inclination–an enormous boon to small satellite customers who prize flexibility and responsiveness. Air launch frees missions from traffic jams at the existing launch sites; eliminates the need for costly, fixed ground infrastructure; and makes the system more resilient to unfavorable weather conditions.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, an aerospace veteran with more than three decades of experience as both engineer and executive on Boeing’s Delta, missile defense, and other programs, noted: “It took an incredible amount of planning and hard work to make today go so smoothly. Modelling and simulations are priceless tools, but nothing beats conducting real operations with real hardware. The fact that we shipped a rocket on this route, positioned it under the aircraft, integrated the system, and verified that that it all works together for the first time all within a single day still astounds me. In the traditional aerospace world, doing all of that would have taken weeks.”

The rocket is outfitted and ready for flight on Cosmic Girl in the near future. It will be used for an extensive test flight campaign that includes a number of “captive carry” flights–during which the rocket will remain attached the aircraft, gathering terabytes of valuable data about aerodynamic performance, structural loading, and more. This specific rocket’s final mission will be a drop test, during which it be released from Cosmic Girl allowing Virgin Orbit to capture further data about the aircraft’s release mechanism and the rocket’s free flight through the atmosphere.

At Virgin Orbit’s rocket factory, located less than a mile away from Cosmic Girl’s spot on the tarmac at the Long Beach Airport, several more rockets are already being assembled. The company has already manufactured its first orbital rocket and has 2 fully integrated rocket stages actively in testing on custom-built stands at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group first began research into small satellite launch technology less than a decade ago, and began work on its innovative 747-launched system in early 2015, initially as a department within one of Virgin Orbit’s sister companies, Virgin Galactic.

The global community of satellite manufacturers has heartily embraced Virgin Orbit and its LauncherOne service. The company already has hundreds of millions of dollars of launches on contract, for customers ranging from NASA and the US Department of Defense to new start-ups, and everything in between. The satellites Virgin Orbit launches for its customers will range from the size of a loaf of bread to a household refrigerator, and will be used for missions including connecting the globe with broadband coverage, gathering critical data about Earth’s changing climate, and demonstrating cutting-edge new technologies for space assets and infrastructure.