Just three years after Virgin Orbit was born as a company, we took to the skies to conduct our very first Launch Demo with LauncherOne. During that demo, we proved out all of the key technologies for a new kind of launch technology: liquid-fueled air-launch. With the first launch just a few months behind us, we are now smartly driving down the path to Launch Demo 2, which our incredibly talented and determined team is targeting to complete before the end of the year.
That’s a pretty quick turnaround by industry standards — so how’d we manage that? Well, the simple answer is that our second launch rocket was already in assembly when the first one flew, along with several other rockets in flow at our state-of-the-art rocket production facility. After all, one launch can make history, but it’s just the beginning. It takes a whole lot more to create a launch service.
Our team has really risen to the occasion in recent months, doing the necessary work and driving forward at a best-in-industry pace — despite the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic that has changed everything about the way we all live and work.
The rocket we will use for Launch Demo 2 shipped out of the factory in late August. After making the short trip up to Mojave Air and Spaceport, that rocket was fitted to a test stand built to emulate Cosmic Girl’s left wing. There, our team hooked up our mobile ground support trailers and conducted a number of checkouts and tests, including fully loading the rocket with propellants like cryogenic liquid oxygen to verify the health of all rocket systems. The test was a major success, and the operation, which resembled a full countdown, benefited hugely from our operational refinements: completing cryo load was a much faster and much smoother process compared to the first time around earlier this year.
We saw a similar quantum leap with the other build and test series we recently completed: the acceptance testing (ATP) campaign for our main stage (“NewtonThree”) engine. Main stage propulsion is a big task for any rocket and any launch, and given the knowledge that we gained from our first Launch Demo, this milestone took on even more importance. But we got through it extremely quickly: work that took us two months to complete just one launch ago was finished in just two weeks this past September.
Our team is better prepared, our hardware is better manufactured, all of our procedures, scripts, and tools are in launch-ready shape — and all of that hard work is paying off big time.
You can hear directly from our technical leaders on what we’ve been up to since our last flight:
Today, both rocket and engine are back down in our Long Beach HQ for final integration. Our NewtonFour upper stage engine is already fully tested and installed, and our NewtonThree engine and a few other bits of flight hardware will join the party in the coming days. We’re preparing for the big move — packing up the rocket and the mobile trailers and transiting everything back to the “hammerhead” at Mojave Air and Space Port — a bare spot at the end of a taxiway (which is all we really require in a launch site). That’s where we’ll mate LauncherOne to Cosmic Girl’s wing just before we fly.
Here’s a glimpse of all of the major campaigns we planned out in between our first Launch Demo in late May and our upcoming flight.
As you’ll see, we are moving steadily forward. We’re not done yet, but every day brings more progress, and we’re keeping our nose to the grindstone so that we can maintain this momentum.
This week, we’re taking another exciting step forward. Yesterday, for the first time in our company’s short history, customers arrived at our facility to begin processing their spacecraft for launch!
Thanks to COVID-19 everything looks a little different than we’d imagined, to be sure. But we’ve worked with NASA and with our payload teams to find safe ways for teams to conduct this work in our beautiful new payload processing facility, called Nebula.
While they’re on-site this week, we’ll work with each team to complete a final round of analysis and testing before finally integrating their payloads into the fairing. The fairing will then be shipped up to Mojave, where we’ll do the final mate to the rocket in our unique mobile cleanroom.
Though our focus has been squarely on preparing for Launch Demo 2 and on welcoming our customers and their spacecraft, our other projects continue to make steady progress. Recently, we participated as the sole space launch provider in one of the biggest military training exercises of all time, demonstrating how a country could very quickly replace a satellite that had been interfered with by an adversary. We have also updated our Service Guide to better set up our customers for success as they plan their missions with LauncherOne. And in parallel to all of that, we’re also preparing the hardware we’ll use on the four flights that follow LD2.
None of this work is ever easy — even in a normal world, much less in the odd world we’re all living in 2020. But the work is worth doing, and it can be done well with the right team, the right tools, and the right experience. We’re excited about what we’ve done, and fired up about what comes next. The team working hard to pull off our second Launch Demo prior to the holidays, and we’ll keep you all updated every step of the way.