Q&A | Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne Point Man
Profile | Will Pomerantz
Vice President, Special Projects, Virgin Galactic
A New Day for Smallsat Launchers?
As if trying to establish the world’s first suborbital space tourism business weren’t enough of a technical and market challenge, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture also wants to get in the game of launching small satellites.
The tourism side naturally commands the most attention — that was the case even before last year’s fatal crash of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo rocketship during a test flight. But the company, whose backers include Aabar Investments of the United Arab Emirates, also has been plugging away quietly on a dedicated air-launched rocket that would deliver small satellites to low Earth orbit for $10 million or less.
LauncherOne is a two-stage expendable rocket powered by liquid-oxygen/kerosene engines. It would be carried aloft by the same WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that takes SpaceShipTwo to its launching altitude and released at an altitude of 13,500 to 15,000 meters.
Recent history is littered with failed attempts to develop commercially focused small-satellite launchers, not only because of the technical challenges and investment required but also because past projections of market demand haven’t quite panned out. Yet today Virgin Galactic is one of several entrepreneurial companies having a go at this very same market, which has been re-energized in recent years by advances in small-satellite technology and a flood of investment capital, much of it from technology hotbeds like Silicon Valley.
Branson is doing his part on that front. The serial entrepreneur’s Virgin Group is making an unspecified, but presumably large, investment in OneWeb, which plans to deploy a 650-satellite constellation to deliver Internet connectivity to the underserved masses. Chipmaker Qualcomm is also investing, despite the fact that these broadband mega-constellations have their own unhappy history.
Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne point man, admits to having come to the business with some skepticism. But he now counts himself squarely among the ranks of those who say, in effect, that this time it’s different.
Pomerantz spoke recently with veteran SpaceNews correspondent Leonard David just before Virgin Galactic announced plans to establish a LauncherOne manufacturing facility in Los Angeles.
How would you describe your job at Virgin Galactic?
It has been four years that I’ve been working with Virgin Galactic, so it’s a little bit of everything now. Broadly speaking, it means for a startup I help out wherever we need help. I’ve done everything from helping to start up the flying of research payloads on our suborbital SpaceShipTwo to helping start up our new satellite launch vehicle, the LauncherOne.
Given all the failed attempts over the years to develop commercial small-satellite launchers, what drove Virgin Galactic to try and enter this market?
I must admit that I started out somewhat skeptical about the small-satellite market when I first got tasked to look at it. A lot of very smart people have tried their hand at it and haven’t had the success that they might desire. My big question when we started looking at it internally was, “What’s different now and what makes us different?”
The time is quite different now and the time is really ripe for this. We’ve got some special things that I think give us a unique flavor that will allow us to address this market. In terms of timing, particularly in the last month or so — but even more broadly over the last couple of years — there is a huge amount of global interest in smallsats. It’s not only from technology players but also from some of the really savvy investment and business players. When I say small satellites, I mean 500 pounds (225 kilograms) or less. What we saw were a lot of companies springing up and doing technology demonstrations, usually using ride shares. That’s a great way for them to get their technology in space and to show their staff and investors that, yes, it works. But it’s not a great way to scale up a business plan.
Is there enough of a market out there to close a business case?
For the moment we’ve focused our efforts on engaging just with the U.S.-based commercial community and particularly with constellation customers. Those are customers that are not just looking for a one-off launch but for a routine cadence of launches. A lot of the initial interest in this did come from Aabar Investments. That was one of the items that they were most excited about. That region of the world is one that has been looking at smaller satellites. The United Arab Emirates has flown a couple of smaller satellites and is starting to build an in-country capacity to build them. Aabar has been plugged into that community for a while and recognized it as a growing business.
When would LauncherOne be ready for business?
For LauncherOne we’re aiming to have initial flights to orbit in the later part of 2016, so relatively soon now. We start to ramp up into regular and routine commercial service immediately thereafter. We have been making a lot of progress in our facilities in Southern California. There’s been a lot of advanced hardware testing of the engines and tankage, avionics, and tests of structures. We will certainly have test flights, but I think that we will have commercial customers even on the test flights. The contractual structures for those will be reflective of the fact that it is an unproven vehicle and doesn’t have a long track record until you’ve got a few under your belt.
For a user of LauncherOne, what’s the cost?
We have committed to a price that is below $10 million. The $10 million covers a single full launch of LauncherOne. Some of our customers will carry only one satellite per launch, others will carry a large number. What we’re working now is how far below that $10 million can we get. Our market is very price sensitive. So the lower we can turn that dial the more business we can get. Not only the more launches we get for each one of our customers, but the more new customers that all of a sudden can play in this field.
Would LauncherOne operate out of just one site?
No. We’re going to make the most out of the benefit of being an air-launched system. WhiteKnightTwo, from a technical level, is capable of going almost everywhere. So in the near-term, we’re looking at various options on both the East and West coasts of the continental United States. Initially we will likely be operating with a single WhiteKnightTwo but it’s always been the intention to have a fleet of WhiteKnightTwos. Ultimately, we want to be able to fly from a lot of different locations.
Who is building LauncherOne?
It is essentially being built all in-house. We have more than 50 people now dedicated to the program. We are developer of the rocket, the engines, tanks — it really is us. By the way, we’re on the lookout for senior people in the field as well as the fresh outs that are looking to transfer to a new industry. We are aggressively out there looking for the best and brightest, for people who have shown they care about what things cost, not just how they work.
How much has been invested in LauncherOne?
It’s been a pretty significant amount of money put in by the Virgin Group and it shows a serious commitment to seeing this project through to fruition.
What does the mid-January announcement by OneWeb of plans to deploy a large constellation of low-orbiting satellites to provide high-speed Internet to underserved areas around the globe mean for LauncherOne?
The Virgin Group put money into them. OneWeb is talking about a very large constellation and, yes, I think we’re going to have a very substantial role there as one of their launch providers. The social mission of OneWeb is pretty clear and also shows us this is a serious part of the industry, a serious business.
Beyond OneWeb, what other customers have you identified?
We’ve announced a few customers early on: Skybox Imaging, GeoOptics, Planetary Resources and Spaceflight Inc. In addition, we’ve gone out to a lot of the manufacturers of small satellites. They are not the end-customer necessarily, but are working directly with the end-customer. A few of those we’ve already announced publicly: the U.S. division of Surrey Satellite and Sierra Nevada. The government market is something that we’ll happily serve, but it’s not our primary focus. We’re developing this launcher for the commercial market. There are a lot of well-established businesses that have been around for a long time and are not space businesses. They have started to take a closer and are asking themselves if space could be part of the portfolio of what they do.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk wants to deploy thousands of satellites into Earth orbit for a global Internet project. Are we seeing an entrepreneurial space race here?
No, I don’t think so. We at Virgin Galactic are big fans of what SpaceX has done and the results that they’ve achieved. I know Richard Branson and Elon Musk have a personal relationship. Both like a little competition. But mainly we see ourselves in neighboring spaces with similar philosophies. With LauncherOne, we’re not getting Falcon 9 bigger. That’s not our sweet spot.
If the various plans for new small launchers and satellites come to fruition, won’t that exacerbate an already serious orbital debris problem?
It is certainly a field in which we are engaged, taking a close look. Between us and our customer base, it’s sort of a shared responsibility. But we’re cognizant of the issue. We need to help solve the problem, not help contribute to the problem to the greatest extent possible.
What concerns you the most in getting LauncherOne off the ground and running as a commercial business?
I think for us, both we and our customers have to remain incredibly vigilant about price. If we allow requirements creep to drive up our prices, every dollar we increase our price tag, it’s taking away from our market.