back to article Virgin Orbit-uary: Beardy Branson's satellite launch biz shutters

Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit has sold all its assets just months after a failed attempt at what would have been first ever satellite launch from UK soil. It's a sad end to months of scrambling to secure funding to keep the operation whole. It also means the company can't sell it out of bankruptcy protection to an owner who …

  1. spireite Silver badge

    Such a shame....

    We were hoping it would pop its cherry and get it well up there...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Such a shame....

      I dunno- Virgin Orbit is certainly fu... well, you get the picture.

  2. Natalie Gritpants Jr

    Not having enough in the bank for a couple of launch failures was naive, or arrogant.

  3. Brian 3

    God forbid Richard himself invest more capital into one of his own ventures...

    1. tony72

      He invested a lot into it. However, at some point, you have to stop throwing good money after bad. They were never going to be profitable, so it was reality-check time.

      1. R Soul Silver badge

        "He invested a lot into it."

        [Citation needed]

        Beardie has a habit of putting very little of his own money where his mouth is. And getting other mugs to put up the dosh for his ego trips. And convincing others that His Beardieness bankrolled these ventures/turkeys when he hadn't. You don't get to be a billionaire tax exile by investing a lot in Beardie-whatever.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't quite get this. Virgin and SpaceX both have leaders with proven track record in business. SpaceX have had numerous explodey incidents but still folks still love them, yet Virgin have one failure to launch and they get dropped like a hot turd.

    1. Mishak Silver badge

      SpaceX got very, very close to failure with Falcon 1 though. They had funds for three rockets, all of which failed. Elon had to look behind the sofa to find enough to complete the fourth - which worked, and got them a launch contract from NASA.

      Just goes to show that getting these things off the ground (in both senses) is the tricky part. The rest is history (in both cases).

    2. anothercynic Silver badge

      Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic (the latter is the one of WhiteKnight fame) are two different companies, both founded and funded partially by the Beardy One.

      Virgin Galactic are the successful ones who got Scaled Composites to build their big carrier plane (and Stratolaunch, the late Paul Allen's effort, copied the concept with its huge plane that recently launched their first test article that was covered here), and their SpaceShipTwo 'space planes'.

      Virgin Orbit were trying to replicate (and improve on) the concept that NorthropGrumman (through Orbital Sciences) revolutionised, i.e. launching a rocket from a mobile platform. After all, if you can avoid having to make your rocket work its way through 13 kilometers of the densest atmosphere (which costs a lot in fuel), then you're already improving your chances. Unfortunately, just like SpaceX in its *very* early days with Falcon 1, Orbit got screwed by an equipment failure (in Orbit's case it was a fuel filter that messed things up). There just wasn't enough money to try again, and the funders weren't willing to stump up more.

      SpaceX on the other hand was lucky in that Elmo stumped up the dosh for three launches, and his boffins managed to eke out four (as mentioned by mishak above), with the fourth being the perfect launch that convinced people that SpaceX wasn't a millionaire playtoy like some others. Orbit didn't get that far.

    3. spireite Silver badge


      Lobbing something up from a 747 was never going to be attracting the market that SpaceX deal with. It's chalk and cheese.

      The 747-launch system was probably worthwhile 10 to 15 years ago.

      It's a generation too late IMO

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. anothercynic Silver badge

        Re: ...but....

        Funny you should be slagging off the 747 given that Stratolaunch, the people who recently lobbed a test vehicle from their Roc plane (you know, this one), bought Cosmic Girl (said Virgin Orbit 747). I wonder why that would be? Possibly because they *don't* consider it 'worthwhile 10 to 15 years ago', and instead consider it to be a viable platform for their business?

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: ...but....

          Stratolaunch have been in business since 2011 and never put anything into orbit. They have a high speed test flight service that brings in some revenue. Not sure whether a unique Roc or a geriatric 747 has the highest operating costs but either way, they have more chance making money as a really big wind tunnel than as a launch company.

          1. anothercynic Silver badge

            Re: ...but....

            They don't intend to launch into LEO either. That was the late Paul Allen's idea behind launching Stratolaunch and building a mega version of White Knight One (the one of Ansari X Prize that then also inspired Virgin Galactic). They've pivoted to becoming a launcher for hyper vehicles... the 747 can help with that.

            And yeah, Rocket Lab walked away with the Launcher One technology... :-)

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They haven't had "numerous" explodey incidents.

      Falcon 1 was their first rocket. It had 3 failed launches in a row that put the company on the brink of failure. If the next launch had failed they probably wouldn't have had enough money to survive. Fortunately, the next launch was a success. There was one more successful launch of the Falcon 1 before it was retired.

      The Falcon 9 has an exemplary success record and is the most successful and reliable launcher anywhere. Out of 232 (and counting, they have a crazy launch cadence) launches the Falcon 9/Heavy have a 99.1 % total launch success rate. They have had one complete launch failure (flight 19, CRS mission to the ISS) and one partial failure (flight 4, CRS mission and Orbcomm) with early versions of the Falcon 9. Compare that to the Ariane 5, considered a very reliable launcher despite the fact it has only a 95.7% success rate from less than half the number of launches.

      The partial failure was due to one engine cutting out during the launch. NASA was the primary customer and exercised their veto on allowing the engine to be relit. The CRS made it to the ISS, but the Orbcomm satellite didn't make it to the correct orbit. If SpaceX had been allowed to relight the engine it would likely have made it, but all primary customers have a right of veto.

      There was also one rocket and payload lost during a fuel load prior to a static fire test (Would have been flight 29, SpaceCom AMOS 6 satellite). Procedures were changed so that the payload is no longer loaded during a static fire test. SpaceCom got a subsequent free launch of one of their satellites.

      That's it. Every other launch has been a full mission success. The Falcon 9 FT and subsequent Block 5 have a 100% launch success record. Most have been landed again and reused.

      The only other "explodey" incidents have been during landings. A few failures while testing landing the Falcon 9 and even fewer failures after testing. Overall a 94.6% landing success rate. All other current orbital launchers (except the Boeing X37 and its Chinese counterpart) have a 0% landing success rate.

      Even the Starship test launches were all successful. The explosions happened during the landings of test articles that were never going to be launched again anyway. The first full stack launch of SuperHeavy and Starship was obviously a failure, but they will learn and get it right. They have to or there will be no Artemis moon landing.

      The difference with Virgin is that SpaceX had just enough money to survive the initial setbacks and build something that works reliably. Virgin didn't, they ran out of cash.

      I hope that other companies can catch SpaceX up. We need multiple rocket companies with reliable launchers to increase access to space while reducing costs.

      1. anothercynic Silver badge

        It had 3 failed launches in a row that put the company on the brink of failure
        Let's not dress it in pretty semantics. Failed launches = numerous (>1, i.e. 3) explodey incidents.

        The story of the Falcon 1 was fascinating to read. Elmo, for all his crazy stuff he pulls these days, deserves credit for going up against ULA and NASA and persuading the USAF that he was serious. Ironically, that's where Gwynne Shotwell comes in with her smooth talking!

    5. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      SpaceX vs Virgin Orbit

      Apple / Oranges

      SpaceX is in the Medium and heavy launch category while Virgin Orbit are in the small launch business, which is over supplied so cut throat on price. The obvious competitors are Northrop Grumman:Pegasus air launched rocket taking 443kg to LEO 41ish times out of 45 for $40M and Rocket Lab:Electron (ground launched) taking 300kg to LEO 33 times out of 36 for $7.5M. Compare that to Virgin Orbit:LauncherOne, air launched taking 300kg to LEO 4 times out of 6 for $12M.

      Believe it or not, Pegasus has no orders announced. Rocket Lab has regular launches and is taking business from failed small launch companies. Air launch is a dead end. The maximum practical size of an aircraft limits it to small launch which has a very limited market size. Rocket Lab are doing well because they got off the ground with a small amount of investment: $100M. They also recover the first stage from the sea, refurbish and reuse some of the components. Launcher One cost $700M to develop. Getting that back from their ~2 launches per year is never going to happen as they cannot compete on price. On top of that, Beardie tried to scam UK tax payers into propping up his failing business. He did scam his investors by loaning Virgin Orbit some money on condition that he gets to keep the entire proceeds of the asset sale. Going through bankruptcy effectively zeros the development costs and even with that Launcher One does not have a business case.

      Now lets actually compare apples with oranges. Falcon 9 takes 17400kg to LEO 224 times out of 226 for $67M (F9 Block 5: 170 successes/170 launches). The first stage has successfully landed 183 out of 192 times. Recovering the first stage allows inspection to discover which components came close to failure so they can be improved. Falcon 9 has the lowest payload insurance premiums in the industry. Their nearest competitors (Delta IV, Atlas and Ariane 5) are all dead rockets walking (there are a few launches still on the books, but those will be the last because they cannot compete on price). No-one else can reuse an orbital booster (Rocket Lab come close). Several Falcon 9 first stages have flown over ten times.

      Falcon 9 is also the top launcher in the small satellite class. Two or three times per year it flies a transporter mission: about 100 small satellites taking a ride share to SSO for a ridiculously low price. That has pretty much killed the small launch market. Several potential small launch companies have scrapped their designs and switched to medium/heavy constellation launchers. There are not enough small payloads going somewhere other than SSO to recoup the investment required for a new small launch vehicle.

      Being the cheapest and most reliable is not enough for SpaceX. They are working on Starship: 150,000kg to LEO for less than the cost of a small rocket. With refuelling: 150,000kg anywhere including the Moon and Mars. Competitor: SLS is 95,000kg to LEO for $2000M or 17,000kg (including 4 astronauts) to TLI for $4000M, half a launch per year. Starship test flights (probably three more this year) make the news even if they do not fail to land. Falcon 9 lands twice per week and only rocket nerds care.

      On top of that, without SpaceX Dragon NASA would still be sending astronauts to Russia to get to the International Space Station.

    6. Binraider Silver badge

      Virgin Orbit was not cost effective. Even if launcherone worked as advertised, there would be no launcher two, because anyone that "wants" to launch cargo in a non-flag wavey manner will book it on one of the (many) much more cost effective launchers already tested and flying regular at lower cost. The only upside of VO or the (already folded) Pegasus air-launch system was targetting funky orbits and bypassing bad weather on the ground. This isn't enough of an advantage because the majority of commercial payloads WANT to go to either LEO/ISS, GEO or Polar; and delaying a couple days for weather isn't that big of a deal. Super time critical launches tend to be those doing long-distance operations and way out of the scope of the payload of VO or Pegasus.

      SpaceX apocryphally would have "died" had the first successful launch of Falcon 1 not taken off; but what other hair brained idea was Musk gonna drop his cash on. He could afford to bankroll it till it worked; knowing that the cost of operation would be outstripped by the lucrative commercial contracts the US Govt are dishing out. It is of course now paying dividends (to the very limited list of private owners of SpaceX).

      VO's lack of cost effectiveness doomed it before it even began.

  5. Blofeld's Cat

    Er ...

    Did anyone else read that as "Virgin Obit"?

    1. chivo243 Silver badge

      Re: Er ...

      No, but it certainly fits the situation!

  6. Groo The Wanderer Silver badge

    I love it when a techbro's ego comes crashing down!

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Ego laughing while rolling in cash

      According to the Evening Standard, Branson lost £1.5B when Virgin Orbit crashed. Impressive as he never put anything like that amount of money in. On paper, the drop from record high share price to crashed price multiplied by Branson's holding shows that sort of loss but in real life he would never have been able to sell all his remaining shares at that price. He did sell most for more than he paid and retained enough to control the bankruptcy so he could suck the last of the blood from the corpse. Bankruptcy implies unpaid creditors - probably suppliers and staff will get nothing after the principal creditor (Branson) has been repaid. Investors will get nothing. Although that will include Branson it also includes some fools suckered by the pump and dump and some pension funds.

      Virgin Galactic had a much more successful pump with a far worse business case. Branson's ego will take a dump on those investors too and laugh even harder.

      1. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge

        Re: Ego laughing while rolling in cash

        Yes, I was one who was invested and lost. But that's the nature of investing in new companies, sometimes you win and sometimes you don't. Had the launch gone well, I'd have made a nice little pile and Britain would have a viable domestic space launch capability. We all lost out here.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Whatever else he may be, "techbro" is most definitely not a word I'd use for Branson! Most of his actual businesses are not tech businesses, and the rest are just branding/licencing deals, eg Virgin Media of which Branson may or may not have some shares, but definitely not control.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What goes up must come down

    Just ask Electric Jesus.

  8. chivo243 Silver badge

    Barely covering lawyer fees for going under

    A cool 36 million, not much when you put it in perspective...

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