Virgin Orbit in Mojave
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, mated to its Boeing 747 aircraft and with support equipment nearby, on the flight line at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. A first orbital launch will take place in the "coming weeks," CEO Dan Hart said Feb. 4. Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit announced March 20 that it will continue operations at its facility in Long Beach, California, after state officials categorized the work as an essential service that should not be completely shut down during the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 19, California, Los Angeles County and Long Beach issued a series of “Safer at Home” orders that closed all non-essential businesses and requires most of the state’s 40 million inhabitants to stay at home until further notice. The city, county, and state orders provide exemptions for certain businesses and industries deemed essential services.

“In conversations with our representatives, we have learned that our work of developing and operating our flexible, responsive space launch system for our customers, including those at NASA and in the U.S. Department of Defense, has been deemed as one such essential service, and that therefore we have been exempted from many of the “Safer At Home” shelter in place restrictions,” Virgin Orbit Kendall Russell said in a statement.

“We take that responsibility seriously, and we will continue our essential work with fierce determination and perseverance,” the statement said.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Virgin Orbit will be sending all employees home for the next week except a “small crew necessary to assure the safety and security of the facility,” said Russell. “Those employees who can do their work remotely will do so; and those who cannot work remotely will still be paid in full.”

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

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

“Unavoidably, this will have some impact on our launch date, and on the launches that immediately follow,” Russell said. But because of the “essential services” classification from local, state, and federal governments, “we are working to minimize that disruption while ensuring the health of our team.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...