back to article Virgin Orbit lays off 85% of staff as funding deal falters

Virgin Orbit — the UK’s big hope for space launches — looks set to suspend operations indefinitely, cutting the majority of its staff and keeping 15 percent as it seeks eleventh hour funding. In a note to investors [PDF], Virign Orbit announced a workforce reduction of approximately 675 employees, in a plan to “reduce expenses …

  1. Dave@Home

    Where is the support?

    The politicians were all happy to mug in front of the cameras the day before the launch, now nowehere to be seen

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Where is the support?

      They are processing the permit to be allowed to submit an application to receive the form.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Where is the support?

        Oh, they already had the committee meeting to decide who should be on the committee to do that? Wow! that was quick!

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Where is the support?

          As soon as they decide which department is responsible for failed space projects - and why it's the Dept Media,Culture and Sport

    2. Insert sadsack pun here

      Re: Where is the support?

      Cornwall Council already chucked £10 million at the "Spaceport". How much more taxpayer money do you want spent on this?

    3. Felonmarmer

      Re: Where is the support?

      Busy re-editting the photo to take Shapps out and put Johnson back.

  2. Scott Broukell

    So does this mean that The Great British Space Port will now feature . . . . a replacement bus service ? (maybe a shuttle bus, if you like)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Whatever else, we can say for sure that it will continue to include the most important aspect of any post-Brexit project.... plenty of Union Jacks all over the place and lashings of puffed-up John Bull-shittery.

    2. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      For Cornwall, possibly as they really only had the horizontal launch cake to eat.

      There is still hope, but very slim, that vertical launch at Sutherland on mainland north coast, or Saxavord on Shetland Islands, will bring success, but both of them are not really bringing much infrastructure to the game. They are largely a concrete plinth in the arse-end of nowhere so if the rocket fails it is very unlikely to hit anyone. The companies looking to use them, like Skyrora, are basically mobile launch vendors so they can turn up almost anywhere with a few containers and the rocket (if not in a few more containers) and they are good to go.

      The real question for folks thinking this is going to usher in a golden age for UK space is much as what caused VO to fail - no real UK gov money to lubricate things (as the USA, etc pours in) and nothing compelling to develop much industry related to the sites. The scale of SpaceX means they can out bid on cost so you have to try and fine niches where someone dearly wants a launch at a time or orbit they are not offering.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Daftness. Geographically not positioned for launches apart from limited high inclination stuff from north Scotland.

        Find somewhere equatorial with a marine down range to the East and do it there. Like the French did.

        1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

          High inclination stuff is quite significant - most Earth observation satellites are in sun-synchronous orbits with around 98 deg inclination.

          Traditional GEO was the moneymaker, but now most new constellations, etc, are LEO and a big portion of those in high-ish inclinations.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            But why develop a space port limited to high inclination? One that couldn't launch to the orbit used by ISS?

            Build one that can do anything. Like the French did.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Like this...

          https://ela.space/arnhem-space-centre/

      2. charlieYoung

        paul, interesting comments but quite wrong. cant speak for Sutherland/orbex who are looking to sell their combined offer as a package, or where Prestwich are with astraius on horizontal launch alt to cornwall..however regarding saxavord, youre in the dark ithink..theyll have three pads with 4 launchers attached to their licence. we're designing and building the processing infrastructure which means saxa will be the only european spaceport qualified for spacecraft using propellants.

        slim chance of success? disagree they seem to be the only ones with their heads screwed on correctly.

        its worth checking your facts before espousing opinions with such factual errors imho

        1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

          It would be interesting to see more information on Savavord's actual plans & progress.

          As for "only European spaceport qualified for spacecraft using propellants" how does that compare with the Esrange Space Center's plans for launching from Sweden? As that seems to be well on its way.

        2. NRL

          Hmm, interesting those continued claims that "only" Saxavord qualified for this, that or the other - I shall presume that you've read this little missive:

          https://www.space.com/first-european-mainland-orbital-spaceport-swedish-rocket-range

          Last I heard, Sweden was still in "Europe" ...

  3. Binraider Silver badge

    Rockets cannot be developed into reliable businesses with just one launch.

    Is Branson behind this venture or not? Or anyone else for that matter?

    How much taxpayer cash was funneled into (another) potty flag waving project?

    And who will be expected to bail them out at the end?

    Like the US Pegasus system, air-launched small satellites are challenging to make commercially viable, especially when you can rideshare on other more traditional launchers.

    1. GioCiampa

      Branson? He'll be taking his royalties for use of the Virgin name, and that's all...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

        Apparently Branson *is* involved with this one- it's a spinoff of Virgin Galactic- or at least he was before it went public.

        That said, yes, the fact that half the users of the "Virgin" brand have have no connection with Branson beyond licensing the name have rendered it pretty meaningless. And even when Branson *was* involved, it had no real meaning beyond whatever pie Branson wanted to stick his fingers into next, e.g. Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Cola (anyone rememember that?)

        Am I the only person who gets the vague impression that those using the Virgin brand think that- like Branson himself- it has more cachet and cool than it actually does? Everyone loves Branson don't they, or at least they did in the 80s when he was the cool-hippy-billionaire-it's-okay-to-like and no-one has bothered to question that since.

        The Clydesdale Bank (which I've been with for thirty years) recently dropped that public-facing name in favour of the Virgin Money brand, some time after buying it. So they've ditched a 200-year-old Scottish name in favour of a brand-slapped-on-pretty-much-anything whose general associations and "feel" don't really match what you expect from a bank, coming across as faintly tacky (rather than cool) in that context, "modern", but in the wrong way for a bank (i.e. lacking history). generic and lacking gravitas.

        At the end of the day, it's just a bank, and Clydesdale and Virgin are just brands. But what gets me is the impression that *someone* obviously thinks the hip, groovy, modern Virgin brand will improve their perception with the public... and whether that's really the case. Certainly isn't with me.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

          Amen. As someone who has previously suffered at the hands of Virgin Media, both as an employee (sorry, associate) and a customer (after I left) I was rather disappointed when Clydesdale bank decided to spend millions of pounds of my/our money taking on Virgins toxic branding along with their rather infantile marketing and business idioms.

          So disappointed that I took the time and effort to write a letter, on real A4 paper, to my bank manager (or what passes for a manager at my now non existent branch) expressing my disappointment at their decisions and informing them that having had various accounts and a mortgage with them since c. 1977 I had no loyalty left and should they commit one P'ing Off offence against me I would be taking my money elsewhere. I didn't hear back from them. Sometime later I was offered to take part in an online survey by them, and once again I expressed my disappointment. That time I did get a message saying thank you for my opinion, but I think that may have been a default message seen by all submissions of the survey.

          As you say, 30-40 years ago, Sir Dicky was seen as the eccentric billionaire hippy that everyone loved, but no more. Virgin is a toxic brand, run in an infantile manner, and he is just creaming off his royalties for making the occasional TV PR appearance or two.

          But, whichever way, it is sad to see the end of the UK's nascent space industry come dangerously close to crashing down.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

            They're chasing the younger market because they appear to have money. One of the reasons the younger market has money to burn is because they can't afford to get on the housing ladder and are living with the parents for many more years than young people previously did. So they want the "hip and trendy digital bank image", not some fuddy duddy old Victorian bank image of old in the hope that when those youngsters do finally scrape together enough for a house deposit, they will take out a mortgage with Clydsedale Virgin Money.

            Most of these "hip and trendy" online banks are not new businesses. They are just re-brands of the old established order. The Co-Op Bank did the same with Smile. There no hint on Smile website that it's owned and operated by Co-Operative Bank.

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

              How old and out of touch does the board have to be - to think that Branson is a draw for the yoof?

              Somewhere in the boardroom of UK-MEGACORP the dust is blown off Sir Archibald Double-Barrelled and somebody suggests that they sign up that young Mr Cliff Richards because the young people seem to like that 'bebop' music

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

                > How old and out of touch does the board have to be - to think that Branson is a draw for the yoof?

                *Exactly* what I was about to reply. (*) I mean, really, does the "Virgin" name have *any* real cachet for (say) a teen or twentysomething these days?

                I very much did get the impression (a) that it was being done on the assumption that the hip, modern Virgin brand would appeal to more youthful customers and (b) that this smacked more of the aforementioned middle-aged-person-who-hasn't-moved on-from-the-eighties taking it for granted that Virgin *was* still a hip, youth-friendly brand.

                (*) Actually, I'd already meant to say as much above as the conclusion to all that rambling before I lost the point...!

            2. graeme leggett Silver badge

              Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

              Did they read your comment because I just went to the website and front and centre it says

              "We’re a digital-only bank. No queues, no hassle, no jargon, no nonsense. We were invented by The Co-operative Bank in 1999 and we’ve been smiling ever since. "

              and at the bottom

              "The Co-operative Bank p.l.c, is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority (No.121885). The Co-operative Bank, Platform, smile and Britannia are trading names of The Co-operative Bank p.l.c., P.O. Box 101, 1 Balloon Street, Manchester M60 4EP. Registered in England and Wales No. 990937"

              That's swift work by their web crew....

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

                "That's swift work by their web crew...."

                SWIFT work - I see what you did there.Very good. Have a beer.

                :o)

                1. Timop

                  Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

                  SEPArated or something thicker?

              2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

                "We were invented by The Co-operative Bank in 1999 and we’ve been smiling ever since.

                Thanks :-) They didn't used to be so up front. It was, of course, always in the small print that most people never read though :-)

        2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

          Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

          I met the man when he was selling US Imports from his shop above a shop on Oxford St in the early 1970's. I still have one of the Grateful Dead albums I bought there.

          Those were the days...

          IMHO, he lost my respect when he sold out his record stores. Since then apart from a few transatlantic jollies, IMHO he has lived on his name.

          I had my doubts about the viability of the latest Cornish Folly right from the start. Still, it is sad to see Newquay in the news for all the wrong reasons.

          1. Insert sadsack pun here

            Re: Meaninglessly diluted and overrated brand anyway

            "Those were the days..." ...when he was fraudulently extracting subsidies from the UK Government, and he was convicted for it. He's turned over a new leaf since then, of course: now he still extracts subsidies from the government, but he does it completely legally!

    2. Woodnag

      Trying to secure funding?

      Sure, with 85% of the workforce laid off, including key engineering. Hmm sounds attractive.

      1. jollyboyspecial

        Re: Trying to secure funding?

        "Sure, with 85% of the workforce laid off, including key engineering. Hmm sounds attractive."

        Doesn't sound all that dissimilar to twitter

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Doesn't sound similar at all.

          Virgin Origin is desperate to find a billionnaire to float its boat.

          Twitter is desperate to get rid of the billionnaire sinking its boat.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Trying to secure funding?

        Depends on which side of the Atlantics version of "laid off" is being used by the now US -centric ElReg in a UK based story.

        AFAIK, "laid off" in the USA means sacked or fired. In the UK, "laid off" is more likely used as a short term thing where the company can't afford to pay the wages and is attempting to re-finance/re-structure and hopefully take the staff back on in a few weeks or a month.

        The risk is that it all fails and the people laid off end up redundant or the company starts up again but some people have found other jobs. The longer the shutdown, the less likely the good staff will still be ready, willing and able to come back. If too many of the essential staff don't come back, the company may fold anyway.

  4. Korev Silver badge
    Pirate

    Cornwall Council "invested" £10 million into the Spaceport at the same time as cutting the Duchy's museum grants meaning it almost had to close and still faces an uncertain future. Hopefully the Cornish taxpayers will start asking some hard questions!

    Looks Cornwall will have to go back to Wrecking at this rate -->

    1. Francis Boyle

      Well

      it's about time we had some space pirates. You'll know space travel has really become routine when we get space pirates.

  5. Headley_Grange Silver badge

    Space is Hard

    Whatever you think about Musk and his Twitter escapades, he understands spacecraft development. He accepted - indeed publicized - the launch and landing failures as part of the development and learning of getting into space and had clearly planned for some. It probably also helps that he put a fair chunk of his own money into it. It would appear that Virgin only planned and budgeted as far as a successful first flight from the UK and assumed that would be easy to get more investment on the back of the first launch.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Space is Hard

      According to Wikipedia, "LauncherOne made six flights total beginning in 2020, resulting in four successes and two failures. Following the failure of the company's sixth launch and an inability to secure additional financing,[5] the company laid off nearly all staff and suspended operations on March 30, 2023"

      So no, VO weren't built on this single UK launch, the rest having been in the USA. But they do seem to have been living from launch to launch and didn't have the funds to cope with too many fails, or 2 out of 6 in this case.

      Possibly some people are confused by El Reg referring to the launch as "the UK’s big hope for space launches", which could imply VO is a British company. Obviously some of those jobs will have been at the Cornish spaceport, ie "British jobs", but I suspect many were never going to be long term since I don't think it likely the UK can support enough launches to make the place viable yet, if ever. I suspect most of the "jobs" in Cornwall were imported US staff, engineers, controllers etc., flown in for the UK launch and now flown back home.

  6. VoiceOfTruth

    What planet are the politicians on?

    -> a wider industrial strategy based on space engineering and launch capability

    Politicians: Let's put our industrial eggs into a basket about which we have not much knowledge, almost no experience, and ~0 capacity. Drinks all round.

    1. TimMaher Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: What planet are the politicians on?

      This one, thankfully.

      It’s a pain for us but the aliens are massively relieved.——->

      1. Paul Herber Silver badge

        Re: What planet are the politicians on?

        That's no way to talk about the Grockles. Ok, maybe it is.

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: What planet are the politicians on?

      Try putting the quote through some translation software. I got: "Branson is a major party contributor. Lets give him some tax payers' money."

  7. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Cast of thousands

    Why do they need 800+ people?

    When SpaceX had their first successful Falcon 1 flight (after 3 failures) I believe they had less than 150 people.

    Startups (and VO is a startup) need to be lean so they don't just blow through all the money, like VO has.

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      Re: Cast of thousands

      Indeed, and that first successful flight was under threat of the axe of the entire company.

      Britain is the only country to cancel a working space programme having proven the ability to do it... Rather sad how we've become red tape and PR chasers rather than actually investing in stuff.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cast of thousands

        If Wikipedia is to be believed, it looks as though Black Arrow was cancelled because at the time the USA offered cheap satellite launches to the UK as a loss leader.... I wonder how the space industry would look today if Black Arrow hadn't been cancelled. Given that launches would have then continued from Woomera, would Australia have a burgeoning space industry now?

        1. VoiceOfTruth

          Re: Cast of thousands

          -> it looks as though Black Arrow was cancelled because at the time the USA offered cheap satellite launches to the UK as a loss leader

          The same Wikipedia article is short on information and can hardly be considered a good reference. However there is this important nugget: "Prior to the cancellation of Black Arrow, NASA had offered to launch British payloads for free; however, this offer was withdrawn following the decision to cancel Black Arrow."

          What a surprise! A potential competitor removed from the market.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Cast of thousands

            It's possible (probable?) that Black Arrow was actually cancelled due to Polaris development... After all, how many satelites did the UK need to launch in the early 60's? There was (unfortunately) one really compelling reason for a country to want a space launch capability back then.

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: Cast of thousands

              Pretty much everyone with a successful launch industry is based on having an ICBM program. The military stuff subsidises the civil stuff - almost every launcher is just an ICBM and a bit of cut-and-shunt welding

              Contrary view: if they had kept the black Arrow the UK government would have had to plough money into an insanely expensive alternative to Polaris/Trident and/or ground based ICBM. They would have had a limited space launch capability that lagged the USA but UK firms would be forced to use it, so strangling the UK's far more profitable and advanced satellite building industry.

              Remember building the big firework , until the new startup ventures, is the low skill/low value/low profit part of the business

  8. RegGuy1 Silver badge

    Who dares, wins

    Nice to see everyone slagging off a company that at least did try to make a go of it. Naturally if they'd been successful it would have been drinkies all round to whoops of ain't tech brilliant. Plus the disaster that is Brexit (which guarantees down votes -- there are some on the planet still too stupid to see this) would have picked on this as see, look how good Brexit is, here's a million union flags.

    But it looks like they've failed, so everyone can now be smug and criticise.

    The US does it much better. Yes, we know that for some things the private sector is better. But as the article says, space is hard. Musk put $100m of his own money into SpaceX. He apparently had sleepless nights worrying if he would fail, but he clearly has some strong skills, because look at SpaceX now. And in large part that is because Nasa put up public money to help drive investment and innovation. Some things won't pay off, but it only takes one to be ultra successful and that can be stunning. But you don't know if you don't try.

    This will never work in the UK because public money is only there to be creamed off by politicians. Baroness Mone springs to mind.

    1. First Light

      Re: Who dares, wins

      Again need to point out Gwynne Shotwell is the brains behind SpaceX,

      1. GBE

        Re: Who dares, wins

        Again need to point out Gwynne Shotwell is the brains behind SpaceX

        Running a successful aerospace company is one thing. Somehow keeping Musk from constantly wading in and wrecking things is even more impressive.

      2. RegGuy1 Silver badge

        Re: Who dares, wins

        No. The brains behind SpaceX is Musk. You rightly highlight Gwynne Shotwell. But she was originally the sales side. Tom Mueller, as just one other name, can also be called the brains behind it. Musk is a dick. BUT he is no fool. He knew he needed clever people to make the company, AND he had to keep driving them. Even now SpaceX is known for its extremely motivated workforce.

        SpaceX has many people that are the 'brains' of the company. But without Musk they are nought.

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          The test of truth is an experiment

          What would happen if Musk left SpaceX to work full time at a social media company?

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Who dares still needs a business case

      The launch failure made the news but Virgin Orbit had two successful launches before that. Compare them to their nearest rival:

      Virgin Orbit Launcher One: $12M to put 300kg in 500km SSO. Dev cost $700M. Nearly 1 launch per year.

      Rocket Lab Electron: $7.5M to put 200kg in 500km SSO. Dev cost $100M. ~8 launches per year.

      Just on those numbers, VO's predicament was clearly dire. In real life, SpaceX does two or three transporter missions per year each taking over 100 small satellites to SSO. The price of a whole Falcon 9 launch is about $60M. Divide that by 100 payloads and you get $600k each - a tenth of the cost on an Electron rocket. Rocket Lab make sense for the odd customers that are not going to SSO or want Rocket Lab's Photon space craft or time on their communications network.

      VO's unique selling point is that their aircraft can in theory take of in weather that would scrub a rocket launch then fly Launcher One to somewhere with better weather. In real life, most customers can wait a few days for nice weather. Launcher One would have been an excellent product a decade ago. It has been blatantly obvious for years (to rocket enthusiasts) that Launcher One was too little, too late. Launch investors have difficulty with the blatantly obvious and it has been clear for a long time that Branson has been cashing out at the expense of people who had more money than sense.

      My criticism of VO is not intended to be smug. What I would like is investors to put their money into something that can compete with Falcon 9 at least, and preferably against the likely potential of Starship instead of projects that divert rocket engineers from products with a future.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Who dares still needs a business case

        Really, the only purpose of a commercial air launched system today is that you can move it around to collect regional development grants.

        I don't have a lot of sympathy for VO, it will probably pop-up tomorrow in Wales as part of Spaceport-Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch if sufficient "leveling-up" grants appear

  9. GioCiampa

    Virgin Orbit could continue in a shell form while chief executive Dan Hart...

    ...continues to take a salary, for running a near-non-existent company?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Virgin Orbit could continue in a shell form while chief executive Dan Hart...

      SCO managed that for decades :-)

  10. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "keeping 15 percent"

    Lighthouse duties are fine, but those 15% had better start polishing their CVs now.

  11. jollyboyspecial

    There were many things wrong with the business plan, but it's not the people who made that plan who need the blame. It's the investors who looked at the plan and didn't spot the flaws. If they'd done their due diligence all that money wouldn't have been pissed away.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Not everything was as clear when this started

      VO was spun out of VG in 2017. VG goes back to 2004. Back then VG's air dropped orbital launch concept was called Launcher One. The plan was to partner with SpaceX. VG would repurpose an aircraft as an orbital launch platform and SpaceX would provide the rocket. It was a courageous decision on many levels: air launch provides some large technological hurdles for only a modest payback. SpaceX had some experimental engines but had not got to orbit. With hindsight it became clear that the biggest problem was SpaceX saying "your rocket will be ready real soon now" while working exclusively on their ground launched vehicle - Falcon 1. Perhaps VG->VO should have spotted they were getting thoroughly screwed over earlier.

      VG/VO did some pioneering work with composites. They discovered many of the problems and some of the solutions that Rocket Lab later put to good use. They developed a hybrid rocket engine and discovered that a hybrid combines the biggest problems of solid rockets with some of the problems with liquid rockets while providing a significant barrier to scaling beyond a small rocket. VG/VG spent a large amount of money on what later were shown to be dead ends. Perhaps spending a bit more would have broken through some dead ends. Certainly pivoting earlier would have given them a better chance.

      When it became clear that their past R&D spend had given them a debt burden that would make them uncompetitive against any launch start up but Pythom they made the correct financial decision: cash out and unload the mummified corpse of the company onto some idiot investor. What better choice could they have made than the UK government? Perhaps they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids! a defective fuel filter.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Thet were only here for benefits payments

    This country doesn't do investments in manufacturing.

    1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

      Re: Thet were only here for benefits payments

      ... or anything else. The present government consists mainly of ideological vandals.

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