NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Space billionaire Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, on Monday spoke to a large crowd of Air Force officers and enlisted airmen about his spaceflight company Virgin Galactic’s ambitions to make commercial space travel a reality accessible to more people.
He also touted the goals set by Virgin’s satellite launch division, Virgin Orbit, to increase its presence in the national security arena. The company modified a Boeing 747 aircraft to serve as a mobile launchpad. A small launch vehicle called LauncherOne is tucked under the wing of the aircraft and dropped from a high altitude, then it ignites its engine and flies a satellite to orbit.
“We can take off and launch a new satellite within 24 hours,” Branson said at the annual Air Force Association’s Air Space & Cyber symposium during a fireside chat with AFA’s chairman, former Air Force Secretary Whiten Peters.
Virgin Orbit in November 2017 received a contract from the Pentagon’s technology outreach organization, the Defense Innovation Unit, to launch an Air Force experimental satellite. Now the company is looking to grow its business with the U.S. military and intelligence community. Branson in recent months has meet with senior officials at the Pentagon and before taking the stage at AFA he briefly met with Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command.
Raymond and other military space leaders have championed the idea of “responsive launch” — having access to small launch vehicles that can deploy satellites on short notice. During a conflict when U.S. satellites might come under attack, that would give the military a capability to get replacement spacecraft on orbit quickly.
“Hopefully, that will be a deterrent to an enemy state to not knock out satellites if America has a capability to replace them within 24 hours,” said Branson. The modified Boeing 747 launch platform, called Cosmic Girl, was designed so it can take off on four or five hours’ notice with a rocket attached under the wing, he said.
Branson mentioned Virgin Orbit’s latest “drop test” of the LauncherOne rocket July 10 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, when it dropped an inert vehicle. A orbital launch will be attempted in the coming months.
Branson said the company plans to work with the U.S., U.K. and European militaries. “We will have planes parked around the world with a number of rockets and a number of satellites. If that’s done, the chances of getting our satellites knocked out by an enemy are very unlikely…we’ll get ours back up.”
Several airmen in the audience asked Branson questions such as what qualities he looks for in astronauts and what job opportunities his suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has to offer to military pilots. Branson said he’s not personally involved in recruiting pilots and joked that “your bosses will think I’ll be poaching from this room.” On a more serious note, Branson told the airmen, “you are the best in the world.”
As a space entrepreneur, Branson believes the private sector can do things cheaper and faster, but he said he also sees a need for government investment. “Private industry generally can do things more cost effectively than government,” he said. “But there are some things the private sector needs to work with government on.” In the case of Virgin Orbit, having planes stationed around the world to launch satellites “would not make sense for us as a private company” but is a capability that would help the Air Force. “There’s a good working balance between the two,” he said. Branson noted that NASA “farms out a lot of its work to private enterprise because they know the private enterprise is likely to do it more cost effectively.”
Branson said Virgin Orbit is expanding its operations in the United Kingdom. The U.K. Space Agency in June announced plans to invest in facilities at Spaceport Cornwall to support launch operations by Virgin Orbit. The company will co-fund the effort.
U.S. Air Force mission
Under the DIU contract signed in November 2017, Virgin Orbit will launch an Air Force experimental satellite from Anderson Air Force Base, in Guam.
The launch was originally scheduled for 2019 from the continental United States. But after further discussions with the Air Force, the mission was pushed to 2020 and moved to Guam, a U.S. island territory in the Western Pacific.
Launching from Guam gives the Air Force more flexibility, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told SpaceNews on Monday after Branson’s speech.
“There are various inclinations that you can fly to from there,” Hart said. Before that mission, the company will conduct two or three more launches from Mojave.
Hart said conversations between Virgin Orbit and the Air Force continue about establishing a long-term contracting arrangement to launch small satellites
“There’s been a lot of discussion,” he said. “It would be great to see the Air Force get a cadence in small launch, and start making use of the system.” That, he said, would “help them learn how to contract efficiently and quickly, and what forms of relationships work and don’t, as well as from our side how we can be responsive.”
The Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft and the launcher potentially could be tweaked to meet Air Force needs, Hart said. “There are aspects of the system that can be augmented and changed that will hit the sweet spot for what the Air Force needs.” Things that are not as critical for commercial missions — like cybersecurity and special equipment aboard the airplane —could be added, said Hart. “We look forward to being a fundamental utility available to them.”
Virgin Orbit and the Air Force are looking at which bases could be suitable for space launches. “We’re working the details of that,” said Hart. “It’s not terribly complex to do. But there’s licensing and logistics that need to be ironed out,” he added. “We’ve been working with Air Force Space Command and Air Mobility Command on what kind of contract relationships and logistics are needed. How do we open up an airfield to do space launch? It’s within the realm of the doable but there’s some work to do to figure it all out.”
Hart said Virgin Orbit was encouraged by the defense budget markup of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which added $22 million to a new program line called Tactically Responsive Launch.
“It’s a great step and an acknowledgment that responsive launch is a key part of resilience,” he said. “If you don’t have flexibility and agility in getting to space, what you do in space may or may not matter.”
This is an issue that is gaining more attention, said Hart. “We’re seeing the Air Force, the intelligence community and Capitol Hill all acknowledging that this is an important facet.”
A key advocate of small launch is Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. Heinrich’s former national security adviser Tony Samp, currently a policy adviser at DLA Piper, told SpaceNews that the creation of a new appropriations line for Tactically Responsive Launch is a big deal for the industry. But critical questions remain, Samp said. “Such as whether DoD can identify appropriate payloads for the variety of platforms in the small launch community, and whether small launch companies can demonstrate they are capable of meeting DoD mission requirements and delivering tangible results for the military.”