Virgin Orbit working toward first launch, schedule reassessed amid pandemic

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LauncherOne rockets, made in Long Beach, California, will be air-launched from a modified 747-400 “Cosmic Girl” carrier aircraft.

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit is reassessing the schedule for the first orbital flight demonstration of its LauncherOne vehicle, which had been scheduled for April.

“We’re mindful that COVID-19 is putting added burdens and stresses on our teams and leaders, so we are assessing things daily and keeping momentum up as best we can while doing everything we can to protect the health of our people,” Virgin Orbit spokesman Kendall Russell told SpaceNews March 19 in a statement.

“This is all taking place at the most critical phase of our prelaunch operations,” said Russell. “We’re moving aggressively to protect our team and our families, and we’re monitoring the situation closely.”

Like most businesses, Virgin Orbit has a large portion of its workforce telecommuting. “At present, we’ve been able to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for the crews who need to be physically on site in order to advance our launch campaign,” said Russell.

LauncherOne rockets, made in Long Beach, California, will be air-launched from a modified 747-400 “Cosmic Girl” carrier aircraft. The vehicle is being offered to government and commercial customers as a flexible launch service that can operate from locations around the world.

The company earlier this month performed a taxi test at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It was a taxi test of the aircraft with a liquid-fueled LauncherOne vehicle attached to it, said Mandy Vaughn, president of Virgin Orbit’s sister company VOX Space. The next step before the orbital launch will be a captive carry test flight with the rocket attached to the plane.

VOX Space, headquartered in El Segundo, California, provides small satellite launch services to the U.S. government.

Later in the year Virgin Orbit plans to conduct its first military launch for the U.S. Space Force from Guam, in the Western Pacific.

Before it flies the DoD mission, Virgin Orbit has to complete the test flight, a launch for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program and several commercial launches for undisclosed customers, Vaughn told SpaceNews.

Vaughn said LauncherOne can fly from almost any runway. The current carrier aircraft is a passenger jet but in the future the company might consider modifying a freighter plane that could transport the launcher vehicle to the launch location. “That could open up other con-ops [concepts of operations] to ship equipment around the world,” said Vaughn.

For the launch from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, “we’re leveraging no infrastructure from the base itself other than the runway and the allocated piece of tarmac where we can load the rocket and service the rocket,” Vaughn said.

Guam is a desirable launch site for many reasons, she said. “Rather than having to fly out of Florida and perform a big dog leg maneuver to be able to get to an equatorial orbit, we’d rather just fly the airplane to the right latitude and launch.” Guam is a “great low inclination launch site for commercial and DoD missions.”