Second time’s the charm for Virgin Orbit, whose LauncherOne rocket reached space on Sunday, successfully deploying 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).
Launched from under the wing of customized 747 carrier aircraft named Cosmic Girl, the two-stage rocket powered itself into orbit, where it released 10 CubeSats—most of which were designed, built, and tested by various US universities.
“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible,” Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson said in a statement. “It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the Virgin LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit. This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”
This flight, according to the company, marks a historical first: “no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space before today.” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said, “A new gateway to space has just sprung open … That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit [Sunday] is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. The effort paid off … with a beautifully executed mission,” he continued, “and we couldn’t be happier.”
Moving forward, Virgin Orbit will transition into commercial service, and has already lined up launches for the US Space Force and UK’s Royal Air Force, as well as commercial clients like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and GomSpace of Denmark. The company’s next few rockets are already being integrated at its California manufacturing facility.
Outgoing NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine applauded the group’s effort, tweeting congratulations on Sunday for “a great achievement.” Bridenstine is set to step down as head of the space agency under President-elect Joe Biden, whose swearing in is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 20.