Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl
Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 aircraft, is prepared for its next LauncherOne mission, scheduled for June 30. Credit: Virgin Orbit

COLORADO SPRINGS — Small launch vehicle developer Virgin Orbit will go public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a deal that includes an investment by Boeing, the company announced Aug. 23.

Virgin Orbit will merge with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, a SPAC that holds $383 million in capital. A concurrent private investment in public equity (PIPE) round, with participation from Boeing and AE Industrial Partners, will provide an additional $100 million.

The deal would give Virgin Orbit with up to $483 million in capital, depending on how many shares in NextGen are redeemed by shareholders. Some recent SPAC deals, both inside the space industry and in other sectors, have seen relatively high redemption rates as shareholders effectively get their money back rather than hold shares in the merged company.

The funds will go toward scaling up manufacturing of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket and to fund growth of its “space solutions business” and new product development initiatives, the company said.

The merger would turn Virgin Orbit into a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq with an initial valuation of $3.2 billion. Existing Virgin Galactic shareholders will own 85% of the merged company, with NextGen owning 10% and the PIPE investors and SPAC sponsors the remaining 5%. The companies expect the deal to close by the end of the year.

“Our success in launch has driven the business forward, and now we expect this investment will enable us to build on our R&D efforts and our incredible team,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a statement.

“The space economy is developing rapidly and Virgin Orbit is well positioned to benefit through its ability to competitively launch at any time, from any place on Earth, to any orbit and inclination,” said George Mattson and Greg Summe, co-founders of NextGen, in the statement. “We look forward to leveraging our industry and financial experience, along with our public company leadership and governance experience, to help Virgin Orbit deliver the next chapter of its exciting journey as a public company.”

Virgin Orbit had been seeking to raise a new round of funding since last year, according to industry officials. The company’s initial focus was on a private round of funding, but the company later turned its attention to SPACs as that alternative financial vehicle became popular. Media reports in June indicated that NextGen was pursuing a deal with Virgin Orbit.

Hart, in a call with reporters shortly before the company’s most recent launch in June, declined to comment on its financing efforts, including the reports of the interest from NextGen. “We’ve had terrific support from our investors, and continue to have very, very solid support,” he said.

Virgin Orbit operates the air-launch LauncherOne system, which features a two-stage rocket launched from a Boeing 747 aircraft. The company has carried out three launch attempts to date. After a failure on the first launch in May 2020, the company reached orbit in January carrying a set of cubesats for NASA. It launched its latest mission June 30, placing seven cubesats into orbit for the Defense Department, Royal Netherlands Air Force and Polish smallsat developer SatRevolution.

Hart said in June the company planned one more launch this year, followed by six in 2022. The launches next year will include missions out of Guam and England’s Spaceport Cornwall. The company’s launches to date have flown out of Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The company has been working on upgrades to LauncherOne but has disclosed few details. NASA’s Stennis Space Center said in an Aug. 18 statement that Virgin Orbit signed a Space Act Agreement with the center in November 2020, giving the company access to NASA expertise and test facilities there. The company performed a series of tests between March and July of a new thrust chamber assembly for the NewtonThree engine used in LauncherOne’s first stage.

“We continue to maintain an excellent working relationship and look forward to our latest N3.2 engine development testing program that will take us into 2022,” Tom Alexiou, program manager for Virgin Orbit’s evolved launch vehicle, said in the NASA statement, but didn’t elaborate on those future tests or, more generally, how it was evolving the launch vehicle.

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...