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Virgin Orbit Operational Pause Leaves Fates of 100s of Employees, Spaceport Cornwall in Limbo

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 16, 2023
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Virgin Orbit Operational Pause Leaves Fates of 100s of Employees, Spaceport Cornwall in Limbo
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Virgin Orbit’s decision to initiative a week-long pause in its operations starting Thursday has left more than 600 employees in California on unpaid furloughs wondering if they still have jobs while the cash-strapped company seeks funding to continue launching satellites.

Virgin Orbit said it expects the operational pause to last until March 21 “in order to conserve capital while the Company conducts discussions with potential funding sources and explores strategic opportunities” in a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

“There can be no assurance that these discussions will result in any transaction. The Company does not currently intend to disclose further developments with respect to these discussions, unless and until its Board of Directors approves a specific transaction or other course of action requiring disclosure,” the company added.

Virgin Orbit’s production facility is in Long Beach, California. Five of the company’s six missions have originated at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s High Desert. The company’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl is usually parked at Mojave, which is also where engines are tested for the LauncherOne booster.

Virgin Orbit conducted one launch in January from Spaceport Cornwall in southern England. The launch failed when a fuel filter broke loose, preventing the second stage from placing nine satellites into orbit. Virgin Orbit has plans to launch twice a year from the spaceport, which is located at Cornwall Newquay Airport.

UK governments spent £19.95 million (US $24.15 million) to bring Virgin Orbit to Cornwall. The funding included:

  • £7.35 million (US $8.9 million) paid by the UK Space Agency to Virgin Orbit
  • £12.1 million (US $14.6 million) spent by the local Cornwall Council for the spaceport;
  • £500,000 ($605,153) from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Fund.

It was revealed that the Cornwall Council paid £1,163,102 (US $ 1.4 million) to Virgin Galactic following the failed launch under a contract signed in May 2021. The contract said the payment

“relates to Virgin Orbit UK Limited, a named core team party within the UK Space Agency Grant Funding Agreement identified to provide specialist services related to horizontal launch system handling and operations. Virgin Orbit have specialist engineering and technical knowledge related to the design, implementation and operation of the spaceport, expertise that is critical to the successful delivery of the spaceport programme.”

The company has also been developing plans to launch from different locations around the world, including facilities in Brazil, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Virgin Orbit has struggled with mounting losses and dwindling cash reserves due to its inability to quickly ramp up its launch cadence. The company’s maiden launch attempt failed in May 2020. LauncherOne then reeled off four successful launches from Mojave in 2021-22 before the failed launch from Cornwall in January.