UK Defence Minister Penny Mordaunt announced a plan on Thursday to loan a Royal Air Force test pilot to Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, apparently so the aviator can earn astronaut wings with Virgin Galactic.
“Virgin Orbit has already pilots with astronaut wings. “It’s currently undertaking pioneering research into launching small satellites into space from the wing of a Boeing 747,” she said in a keynote address to the Air and Space Power Conference 2019 in London.
“Science fiction is becoming science fact. One day I want to see RAF pilots earning their space wings and flying beyond the stratosphere, One day I want to see RAF pilots earning their space wings and flying beyond the stratosphere,” Mordaunt added.
“So today, I can announce we’re making a giant leap in that direction by working towards placing a Test Pilot into the Virgin Orbit programme,” she said. “Sending a bold signal of Global Britain’s aspiration…and showing that if you join our RAF…you will join a service where you can become an aviator or an astronaut…where you will help push back the frontiers of space and create a launch pad to the stars.”
Virgin Orbit is focused on orbiting small satellites using an air-launched booster named LauncherOne. The modified Boeing 747 used in the program does not fly to space.
Virgin Orbit’s sister company, Virgin Galactic, is planning to fly passengers above 50 miles (80.4 km) using the air-launched SpaceShipTwo. The two companies share pilots.
“We are thrilled that, pending US government approvals, a @RoyalAirForce test pilot will be joining our program,” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “The addition of a top-notch pilot will further bolster our excellent team! Thank you, @PennyMordaunt, for your vision and leadership.”
Virgin Orbit’s first test launch is expected later this year from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company plans to launch satellites from multiple locations, including Cornwall in England.