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LauncherOne’s Long & Winding Road to Orbit: A Timeline

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
October 12, 2015
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LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

If the current schedule holds, Virgin Galactic’s revamped LauncherOne program will enter commercial service sometime in 2018 after roughly a decade of development. During that period, the program has been redefined several times, lost two of the key people hired to lead it, and changed its launch platform from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet. The estimates for the initial flight tests also have slipped by about  four years from 2013 to 2017.

Below is a timeline of the program’s major events, milestones, announcements, hires and departures, and other things. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed anything significant.

Key Developments

December 2008 — Whitehorn Publicly Discusses Launcher Plans
Virgin Galactic in SpaceShipThree talks

Speaking at a space conference in England, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn discusses work the company has been doing during the year. He mentions an all-composite, two-stage launch vehicle using off-the-shelf solid rocket motors to place satellites weighing up to 200 kg (440 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO). Virgin Galactic also had studied using hybrid motor technology developed for SpaceShipOne to launch 100 kg (220 lb) payloads to LEO. Virgin would eventually develop liquid fuel engines for the launch vehicle.

July 2009 — Aabar Invests in Virgin Galactic
Abu Dhabi Group Makes $280 Million Investment in Virgin Galactic

Aabar Investments, a sovereign wealth fund owned by the Abu Dhabi government, invests $280 million for a 31.7 percent share of  Virgin Galactic. Aabar pledges to invest an additional $100 million if and when Virgin Galactic develops a viable small satellite launch system. A signing ceremony takes place during the annual Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin where Virgin Galactic has brought WhiteKnightTwo.

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, which made a $280 million in Virgin Galactic.

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, which made a $280 million in Virgin Galactic.

October 2009 — LauncherOne Operation Established, Leader Hired
Virgin Galactic Ramps Up Satellite Business With Key Hire

Virgin Galactic hires Adam Baker from Surrey Satellite to oversee development of an air-launch rocket. Media reports indicate the plan is to develop a launcher capable of placing a 50 kg (110 lb) payload into LEO for about $1 million. The company hopes to begin launches in the 2013-2014 time frame.

October 2010 — Baker Departs Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic Satellite LauncherOne Manager Leaves Amid Uncertainty

Baker departs Virgin Galactic without explanation as the company appears non-committal about the launcher program. “It’s potentially an exciting area,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides tells the BBC. “Galactic as a whole may at some point in the future continue to work beyond looking at future projects. It’s an area we continue to think about.”

Tom Markusic

Tom Markusic

May 2011 — Tom Markusic Joins Virgin Galactic
So Sir Richard: How’s the Engine Coming?

Reports surface that Tom Markusic has joined Virgin Galactic from SpaceX to oversee the company’s liquid engine development program.

Markusic would lead the development of the Newton family of liquid fuel engines. NewtonOne and NewtonTwo were designed for use on LauncherOne. The larger NewtonThree engine was sized for eventual use on a future version of SpaceShipTwo, replacing the hybrid motor.

July 2011 — Aabar Makes Additional Investment in Virgin Galactic
Aabar Invests Another $110 Million in Virgin Galactic

Aabar Investments raises its stake in Virgin Galactic to 37.8% from 31.8 percent with an additional investment of $110 million. The company’s total investment in Richard Branson’s space company now totals $390 million.

June 2012 — DARPA ALASA Award
Report: Virgin Galactic Revives Air-Launch Satellite Project

Reports surface that Virgin Galactic has been awarded an 18-month feasibility study contract under DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. ALASA aims to develop a system capable of launching a 45 kg (100 lb) satellite into orbit for less than $1 million. DARPA eventually awards ALASA contracts to Boeing and Ventions LLC.

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Artist’s conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

July 2012 — Virgin Galactic Officially Relaunches LauncherOne
Virgin Galactic Restarts LauncherOne Project
Video on Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne

Richard Branson relaunches LauncherOne during the Farnborough International Air Show in England. The rocket will be capable of placing payloads weighing 100 kg (250 lb) to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and 225 kg (500 lb) into LEO for less than $10 million. Plans call for flight tests in 2015 and commercial service beginning in 2016.

The company also announces it has signed agreements with Spaceflight Services, Planetary Resources, Skybox Imaging, and GeoOptics. Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Corporation will develop satellites optimized for LauncherOne.

December 2013 — Markusic Departs Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic Propulsion VP Leaves for New Launch Company

Markusic leaves Virgin Galactic without explanation. He establishes Firefly Space Systems, a start-up company developing a ground-based, small satellite launch vehicle. A number of Virgin Galactic engineers follow him to the new company.

January 2014 — Virgin Touts Progress in LauncherOne Engine Development
Virgin Galactic Reaches Milestone in LauncherOne Engine Testing

Virgin Galactic announces it has successfully hot fired a 3,500 lbf thrust rocket engine and a 47,500 lbf thrust rocket engine, called the NewtonOne and NewtonTwo, respectively. The motors were developed by Markusic and his team to power LauncherOne.

Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)

Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)

Reports of a possible alliance with Google surface. The Silicon Valley search giant would take over development of LauncherOne and make an equity investment in Virgin Galactic. Sources say nothing came of the talks.
Sources say little progress is being made on the launch vehicle during this period as Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites focus on completely SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program and getting the vehicle into commercial service.
October 31, 2014 — SpaceShipTwo Crashes
Virgin Galactic Spacecraft Crash Kills Pilot
SpaceShipTwo breaks up during a flight test, killing Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury and leaving pilot Pete Siebold hospitalized. Although Virgin Galactic officials vow to complete the second SpaceShipTwo then under construction within five to six months, those promises prove to be well off the mark. With the space tourism side of the business having suffered a major setback, the company will soon focus on the launch vehicle program.
December 2014 — Virgin Galactic Hires White House Veteran
Virgin Galactic Appoints Rich DalBello as New Business Development VP
The company announces the appointment of White House veteran Richard DalBello as vice president of Business Development and Government Affairs. DalBello will be responsible for managing business development with a focus on LauncherOne and the company’s interactions with the US government.

Greg Wyler announces his company, OneWeb, will orbit a large constellation of satellites to provide global broadband services. The Virgin Group is a partner in the venture, with Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne due to play a role in orbiting OneWeb’s satellites.

OneWeb satellite. (Credit: Airbus Defence & Space)

OneWeb satellite. (Credit: Airbus Defence & Space)

February 2015 — LauncherOne Operations to Move Out of Mojave
Virgin Galactic Moving LauncherOne Design and Production to Long Beach

The company announces it will move LauncherOne operations to Long Beach, Calif.

March 2015 — Virgin Galactic Holds Jobs Fair for Launcher One
A Successful Job Fair in Long Beach, the Newest Home of the Small Satellite Revolution

Virgin Galactic holds a jobs fair at its new Long Beach facility that attracts more than 6,000 people for about 100 full-time positions.

Greg Wyler of OneWeb

Greg Wyler of OneWeb

February 2015 — LauncherOne Schedule Slips
Q&A | Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne Point Man

Virgin Glalactic Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz tells Space News the company expects LauncherOne flights to begin in “the later part of 2016,” about a year behind the original schedule. Commercial flights would follow in 2017.

June 2015 — OneWeb Launch Contract Announced
OneWeb Signs Contract for 39 Virgin Galactic LauncherOne Flights

OneWeb orders 39 launches of LauncherOne from Virgin Galactic with an option for 100 more. This is likely the largest single commercial satellite order ever made in terms of the number of launches. It’s also an extremely large number for a launch vehicle that has never flown.

July 2015 — Reports Surface of Larger Launch Vehicle
Virgin Galactic Focused on Larger Satellite Launch Vehicle

Parabolic Arc reports that Virgin Galactic is looking to develop a larger launch vehicle with a much larger payload that would use NewtonThree and NewtonFour engines. The increased size would allow LauncherOne to orbit two to three OneWeb satellites. The rocket would be air launched from a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet instead of WhiteKnightTwo.

August 2015 — SpaceX Vet Hired to Run LauncherOne Program
Virgin Galactic Hires SpaceX, Qualcomm Vet to Run Launch Program

Virgin Galactic announces the hiring of SpaceX veteran Barry Matsumori as Senior Vice President of Business Development and Advanced Concepts for the LauncherOne satellite launcher service.


LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

September 2015 — Virgin Galactic Re-re-launches LauncherOne
Virgin Galactic Announces More Capable LauncherOne

The company announce an enhanced LauncherOne capable of lofting 200 kg (440 lb) to SSO and more than 400 kg (880 lb) to LEO for under $10 million. This represents a significant increase over the previous capacity of 100 kg (250 lb) to SSO and 225 kg (500 lb) to LEO.  Officials say the change is in response to market demands for a more capable launcher.

The new rocket will use NewtonThree and NewtonFour engines; the NewtonOne and NewtonTwo have been retired. Officials also confirm the mvoe from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet as a launch platform. The company says flight tests would begin at the end of 2017 with commercial launches the following year, a delay of an additional year over the schedule from February.

September 2015 — NewtonThree Engine Firing
Virgin Galactic Successfully Fires NewtonThree Engine

Virgin Galactic releases a video of a successful NewtonThree static firing.