In One Year and Out the Other

2019 has been one hell of a year for the Virgin Orbit crew. We entered this year with a brilliant team and a lot of cool technology — but there were some really big milestones we still had yet to cross. 12 months ago, we hadn’t yet qualified an engine for flight. We hadn’t yet fired our main stage.  We had mountains of simulations for how to fly, but hadn’t run though a full mission sequence in software, much less done so with a fully integrated rocket on the test stand. And we hadn’t actually taken off with a fully loaded rocket strapped to its wing.  

As of today, we’ve done all of that and so, so much more. We aced a series of progressively challenging test flights, culminating in a hugely successful drop test over Edwards Air Force Base. We’ve completed hundreds of hotfires on our main stage engine, NewtonThree, and hundreds more on our upper stage engine, Newton Four. We’ve had moments of great triumph after picture-perfect tests — and, as comes with the territory, we’ve had days where Murphy’s law taught us a few new lessons. 

At the beginning of 2019, we set some extremely ambitious goals for a company that was barely two years old: to fully qualify our “flying launch site,” to convert our Long Beach headquarters from an R&D facility into a high-rate production factory, and to conduct our first demonstration launch. As bold as those goals seemed — each of those three projects historically take companies many years to do — we came damn close to actually pulling it off. Our flying launch site is indeed ready to go, and our factory is now full of flight hardware for a half-dozen rockets and breakthrough automation to help us build more.

Most recently, we delivered a beautiful, flight-worthy rocket to the launch site after qualifying a boat-load of components and fielding a state-of-the-art launch control system. But with the clock winding down on December, we’re not quite ready to check off that third and most ambitious goal.

Thankfully, everything that we’ve accomplished in recent months has placed us in prime position for an imminent orbital demo flight. So here’s what to expect in the coming weeks as we push to close out our first launch campaign. 

In our most recent update, we mentioned that we were driving through final procedure rehearsals. We’re coming up on the tail end of that, having completed multiple propellant load cycles and pressurization testing on the orbital test rocket while working around the clock at our Mojave operations site. We’ve pushed our system to ensure it is ready for flight, and our team has driven hard to lock down the procedures that keep our operations safe and smooth. With each repetition, our countdown has become more synced and repeatable.

Now, we’re getting ready to shift all of our operations to the customized 747 that serves as our fully mobile launch site. Parked at “the hammerhead,” a part of the taxiway adjoining the primary runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, we’ll do the final mate of the rocket to Cosmic Girl and run through our rehearsals again. 

In January, we plan to have Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer and the rest of our flight crew guide us through one more taxi test with the mated rocket and an additional captive carry test with our orbital flight hardware. Then, we’ll be ready to light this candle and conduct our launch demonstration. 

For years, everything’s been building: our team, our market, our technical expertise, and our enthusiasm. As 2019 draws to a close, we’re stronger and smarter than we’ve ever been before, and feeling ready to rock. To stay in the loop, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.