Failure to launch: What next for Virgin Orbit?

Billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson has seen plenty of setbacks in an illustrious business career

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As it became apparent that Virgin Orbit's attempt to launch the first satellites from UK soil was failing, it was not just the LauncherOne rocket that was faltering.

Shares in Virgin Orbit soon started to plunge as well, dropping as much as 37 per cent in pre-market trading on the Nasdaq in New York.

Virgin Orbit’s modified 747 plane “Cosmic Girl” took off from Spaceport Cornwall in south-west England on Monday night, carrying the company’s LauncherOne rocket under its wing.

At an altitude of 10,600 metres, the rocket successfully deployed and ignited its main engine. But shortly afterwards on its journey upwards, it suffered what's being called an unknown “anomaly”, leading to the loss of the rocket and its satellite payload.

'Get back up and try again'

However, Virgin Orbit and its billionaire founder, Sir Richard Branson, will not see this as a disaster, merely a set back. Because that's what business entrepreneurs do.

After a bicycle accident on the Caribbean island Virgin Gorda in 2016, where he cracked a cheekbone and tore some ligaments, Sir Richard said: “My attitude has always been, if you fall flat on your face, at least you're moving forward. All you have to do is get back up and try again.”

That would seem to be the plan for Virgin Orbit now.

“We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process,” said chief executive Dan Hart.

Virgin Orbit was formed in 2017 with the specific purpose of building a rocket, known as LauncherOne, that could be flown to high altitudes by Cosmic Girl, a modified former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747. LauncherOne would then deliver small satellites to orbit.

Virgin Orbit grew out of Sir Richard's first space company, Virgin Galactic, which he founded in 2004.

To achieve his dream of commercial manned space flight, Sir Richard formed The Spaceship Company with the American aerospace engineer and founder of Scaled Composites Bert Rutan in 2005.

Initially, Scaled Composites had a 30 per cent slice of TSC, but by 2012, Virgin Galactic owned the whole company. TSC was formed to own the technology that Scaled Composites created when building the initial spacecraft.

Investment and floatation

At the end of 2021 Virgin Orbit was launched on the US stock market, using a special purpose acquisition company, a shell company set up specifically to buy a private company and sidestep some of the costs and regulations of an initial public offering.

Going into the merger, Sir Richard's Virgin Group and the UAE's Mubadala owned Virgin Orbit and had already invested $1 billion into the venture.

“I certainly wouldn’t have invested a billion dollars if I wasn’t extremely confident,” Sir Richard told CNBC at the time.

The shell company was called NextGen Acquisition Corporation 2. The deal only raised $228 million, which was less than half of the expected $483 million, but that didn't dent Sir Richard's enthusiasm.

“Virgin Orbit is well positioned to continue revolutionising satellite launch and building unrivalled space technology that we believe will positively change the world,” he said at the time.

Time and space

Space business investment is a long-term game. While Virgin Orbit's latest accounts show growing losses, they also show increasing revenue. When the shell company deal was announced in August 2021, Virgin Orbit was planning for 18 launches this year and to be in profit by 2024.

While this may have been slightly optimistic, one failed mission is unlikely to derail the project. The long-term nature of the project has been one of its strengths.

In 2010, the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, then called Aabar Investments, bought a 31.8 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic for $280 million, which gave it the exclusive regional rights to future space tourism and space flights from the UAE.

The following year, Aabar invested a further $110 million to develop a programme to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit, which became the seed of Virgin Orbit.

By 2017, Aabar had become the Mubadala Investment Company. Mubadala, the Virgin Group and the company's other investors not only have deep pockets but appear to be in it for the long run.

Investing in a company like Virgin Orbit is not just about making money from delivering satellites to low-Earth orbits. Scientific and creative spin-offs may also emerge.

For example, next time you take a picture with your smartphone, remember that the technology behind the camera was first developed by Nasa. The CMOS active pixel sensor in most smartphone cameras was invented for interplanetary missions.

Sir Richard's business career spans more than five decades and has seen successes and failures. Perhaps his most famous mistake was when he went up against Coca-Cola and Pepsi with Virgin Cola, a soft drink which barely won 0.5 per cent of the market.

But taking on the cola giants at their own game and then having the sense to quit is the entrepreneurial essence of business people like Sir Richard.

“I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It's done on gut feeling, especially if I can see that they are taking the mickey out of the consumer,” he once said.

Sound investment

Virgin Orbit missions have mostly been named after famous and popular songs, including Tubular Bells Part One, the haunting anthem by Mike Oldfield; Above the Clouds by the hip-hop sensation Gang Starr and Straight Up by Paula Abdul. All of those missions were completed at Virgin Orbit's launch site in California's Mojave desert.

But not so successful was the mission from Cornwall in England, named after the Rolling Stones song Start Me Up.

However, after Monday's failure and in the spirit of Sir Richard's continuing entrepreneurialism, perhaps the mission should be renamed after Chumbawamba's Tubthumping, which features the lyric: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never gonna keep me down.”

Updated: January 10, 2023, 1:58 PM