Virgin Orbit team
Employees of Virgin Orbit, the company spun off from Virgin Galactic to focus on LauncherOne, pose at the company's Long Beach, California, facility. Credit: Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic announced March 2 that it has picked a former Boeing space executive to lead its smallsat launch project, which is being spun out into a separate venture.

Dan Hart will be president of Virgin Orbit, a new company created from the division of Virgin Galactic that had been working on the LauncherOne air-launch system. Virgin Orbit is part of the portfolio of companies within the Virgin Group known as Galactic Ventures, which also includes Virgin Galactic and its manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company.

“We really wanted a focused company for the small satellite launch market, because we knew that this is such an exciting moment for small satellite launch,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in an interview.

The first president of Virgin Orbit will be Dan Hart, who worked for 34 years at Boeing in various satellite and launch vehicle programs. He was most recently vice president of government satellite systems at the company.

“I had been observing and admiring the transformation that has been going on in the industry” while contemplating the next phase of his career, Hart said in an interview. “The spirit here, the drive of the team to develop this launch system and really open new doors, is something that really appeals to me.”

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

Virgin Galactic announced plans for LauncherOne in 2012. Originally, the rocket would launch from the same WhiteKnightTwo aircraft being developed for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft. In 2015, Virgin Galactic announced that it had purchased a Boeing 747 aircraft that would serve as the launch platform for the rocket, providing increased performance for the rocket.

The LauncherOne effort had increasing become a part of Virgin Galactic distinct from its better-known suborbital spaceflight program. Besides its own carrier aircraft, LauncherOne was being developed at a separate facility in Long Beach, California. More than 200 Virgin Galactic employees there will now be part of Virgin Orbit, and Whitesides said the new company is continuing to hire additional staff. Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company have more than 500 employees, primarily in Mojave, California.

“We’re still part of this family, so there will still be different interactions depending on technical areas,” Whitesides said of the relationship among Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company. “We think that having a dedicated team is really going to be important for the mission success and customer focus that this market demands.”

Whitesides said Virgin Orbit is still on track for an initial test launch of LauncherOne by the end of this year. “We’re well through development of all major subsystems,” including the engines that will power the two-stage rocket, the vehicle’s structures and other major elements of the vehicle. Modifications of the 747, being done by L-3 Technologies in Waco, Texas, should be complete in the next few months.

“The heavy focus over the next number of months will be on integration and initial operations,” said Hart.

Whitesides said the company has continued to see demand for LauncherOne. “We’ve been signing up additional customers. Some of them want to be public and some of them don’t,” he said. He added he did not expect changes in the company’s deal with OneWeb, who signed a contract in 2015 for 39 LauncherOne launches, because of OneWeb’s merger with Intelsat announced Feb. 28.

“There is still not a responsive, high-flight-rate, low-cost small satellite launch manufacturer in the U.S.,” Whitesides said, “and I think we’re working hard to become that.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...