Virgin Orbit says U.K launch licensing taking longer than expected

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Updated 11:30 a.m. Eastern with statement from CAA.

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit acknowledged it has taken longer than planned to get approvals for its first launch from the United Kingdom but still expects to conduct the mission before the end of the year.

In an earnings call after the release of its third quarter financial results Nov. 7, Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart said there was not any “showstopper” preventing the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) from issuing a launch license for the “Start Me Up” mission from England’s Spaceport Cornwall but that the process was being delayed.

“We don’t have major issues at play,” he said. “This is the first space launch ever from the U.K. There’s a new set of regulations, a new team. We’ve been working very closely with them, and it’s just taken time.”

Virgin Orbit once projected performing the launch this summer but delayed it several times. Last month, the company’s Boeing 747 aircraft, nicknamed “Cosmic Girl,” arrived at the spaceport along with the LauncherOne rocket and other equipment needed for the mission, while the satellites flying on the mission were being prepared for launch.

The mission is now scheduled for launch as soon as later this month, but Virgin Orbit is still awaiting a CAA launch license and Spaceport Cornwall also has pending a spaceport license from the agency. Hart, in the call, did not estimate when he expected the CAA to issue the licenses.

“The good news is that we don’t see a showstopper or a big issue we’re working,” he said. “But, it is taking longer than we had anticipated and it is taking a bit more effort than we anticipated as well.”

The CAA has not commented publicly on the status of the Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall license applications. The delays have attracted the attention of a House of Commons committee, which released a report Nov. 4 criticizing those delays and calling for more personnel to be assigned to reviewing license applications. “For this initial set of licence applications, the Department for Transport must provide additional resource to the CAA to ensure that the licensing process does not impede the feasibility of a launch this year,” the report stated.

A source familiar with the CAA’s licensing activities, speaking on background, noted that the CAA now had about 50 people working on license applications, up from the 35 mentioned in the report. That included one person seconded to the CAA from the U.S. Federation Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“We are assessing the evidence supporting a range of space industry license applications to determine if they meet the statutory requirements for granting space licenses for U.K. launch, which include safety, security and the environment,” a spokesperson for the CAA said in a statement to SpaceNews. “We’re committed to helping drive forward a U.K. space sector and continue to work proactively with all parties. As part of this, it is important we do so with a view to prioritizing public safety, and be satisfied that steps being taken by operators manage safety risks to as low as reasonably practicable.”

Those delays have affected the schedule of Virgin Orbit launches. While Virgin Orbit entered the year projecting up to six launches, and in August still expected to conduct four, Hart said on the call that the company now projects only three launches this year, with the Cornwall launch being the third one after successful launches in January and July. That schedule, he said, is “driven by the timing of regulatory approvals, our efforts to obtain certifications for high-value payloads and satellite readiness.”

Despite the challenges getting ready for a U.K. launch, Virgin Orbit remains committed to a strategy of offering its air-launch system to other countries. Hart mentioned in the call agreements to at least study providing air launch services in Australia, Luxembourg and South Korea, all signed in recent months.

“There are a number of countries watching and learning,” Hart said. “I think this activity will help us form a blueprint that we can apply again and again.”

Virgin Orbit, which recorded no revenue in the second quarter, generated $30.9 million in the third quarter. Brita O’Rear, chief financial officer, said that revenue came from a launch conducted in July as well as “other proprietary mission unique launch service activities as well as funded studies.” She did not break out the split between launch and other revenue.

The company, despite the increased revenue, had negative adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) of $42.9 million and negative free cash flow of $52.5 million. The company ended the quarter with $71 million of cash on hand, but raised $25 million in new funding from Virgin Group Nov. 4.

Hart was optimistic on the call about new markets, with the company expecting to at least double its launch rate next year. That includes increased demand for responsive space from the U.S. military despite losing a U.S. Space Force Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS) contract to Firefly Aerospace in September.

“Tactically responsive launch is a key market area for us, and we’re going to continue to work closely with that customer,” he said. The company’s proposal rated very high in technical capabilities, but Hart said the company, while disappointed in the loss, didn’t contemplate a protest. “We’re instead working very closely with that customer to put forward a solution that we think will be a game-changer for them.”