Virgin Orbit eyes growth in military ‘responsive’ launch
WASHINGTON — After completing two successful missions this year, Virgin Orbit is looking to grow its military business by proving that rockets launched from airplanes in flight can be instruments of national security.
“Anywhere, anytime and unwarned,” is the tag line that Mark Baird uses to describes Virgin Orbit’s launch service.
Baird, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, was recently named president of VOX Space, a subsidiary of small satellite launch services provider Virgin Orbit. VOX was created in 2017 to focus on the national security market.
The Pentagon in its strategy for how to defend its space assets talks about “rapid reconstitution,” Baird said in an interview last week at the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
Having the means to replace satellites in orbit quickly during a crisis is a capability that could help deter enemies from launching attacks against U.S. space systems, said Baird. “In a previous life when I was doing space superiority stuff, this is what I kept arguing that we need.”
DoD calls this “tactically responsive launch.” Congress has been keenly interested in this program and is pressing DoD to fund it.
The U.S. Space Force demonstrated tactically responsive launch in June in a mission named TacRL-2. A surveillance satellite developed in less than a year was launched to orbit on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL, a rocket deployed from a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar carrier aircraft. Northrop was given 21 days’ notice to get ready for the flight.
Mike Rokaw, vice president of operations at VOX Space, told SpaceNews that Virgin Orbit expects to compete for future Space Force TacRL launch contracts. A call for bids for TacRL-3 and TacRL-4 is expected in the coming months.
Virgin Orbit was not allowed to compete for TacRL-2 because at the time the request for bids came out the company had not yet completed its first launch, Rokaw said. TacRL 3 and 4 will require providers to launch with just 18 days’ notice. “That’s in our wheelhouse.”
Rokaw said LauncherOne will be competitive against the solid-fuel Pegasus because it’s cheaper and liquid-fueled, “which is a softer ride.”
The Space Force paid $28 million for the TacRL-2 launch. Virgin Orbit advertises $12 million per launch although there could be additional costs to meet specific military requirements.
“We think we bring to the table a good economic option for the government,” Rokaw said. “I think next time TacRL comes out, we’re competing.”
LauncherOne and Pegasus will compete for tactically responsive launches against vertically launched rockets like Rocket Lab’s Electron and others that also promise rapid response services.
Rokaw said Virgin Orbit hopes to demonstrate to the Space Force that air-launched rockets are the faster option. During his U.S. Air Force career, he said, Rokaw oversaw Global Positioning System satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“I hated launching out of Cape Canaveral in the summer between one and three o’clock with an 18 minute window,” he said. “Storms came rolling in. So we had to do it again tomorrow.”
‘Not range bound’
Virgin Orbit currently flies from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and expects to start flying from Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base next year once its license is approved, as well as from Spaceport Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
“The beauty of our system is that we’re not range bound,” said Rokaw. He recalled that before the most recent launch at Mojave, “we were going to launch at 11 o’clock and the Navy was doing some fleet exercises. They asked if we could change your launch window to earlier in the morning … I don’t think we can do that with fixed ranges.”
The next military launch for VOX will be this fall, a mission for the Defense Innovation Unit. Separately, the company last year won a $35 million Space Force contract for three launches that will be scheduled over the next two years, said Rokaw.
Virgin Orbit’s factory in Long Beach, California, is sized to produce 20 rockets a year. The company only has one 747 carrier aircraft but plans to add more to the fleet once business ramps up, said Rokaw. “When we get to 18 to 20 launches a year, we will have multiple planes to handle that bandwidth.”