Rockets of Today


In 2004, a suborbital spaceplane called SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize by being the first privately funded craft to take a human pilot to 100 km in altitude, and then do it again within a week. This generated huge publicity. The vehicle was designed by legendary airplane builder Burt Rutan (now retired), and built by his company Scaled Composites, with funding from Paul Allen. It launched from under a specially made carrier plane, the White Knight. It used a hybrid rocket motor, with solid fuel and liquified oxidizer, namely nitrous oxide. (This is the same approach the Mythbusters used to make cheap crude rockets out of plumbing parts and the like, burning assorted fuels from candle wax to gummy bears to salami.)

After winning the prize, they formed a joint venture with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which started preselling tickets for suborbital flights. This generated even more hype, but nothing happened for years. Scaled Composites started developing the larger SpaceShipTwo, but in 2007 an engine test killed three engineers and injured three more with shrapnel. They got it flying (or at least gliding) in 2010, but in 2014 it broke up, killing one pilot and throwing the other into open air with numerous injuries.

That same year, they fired Sierra Nevada Corporation as their engine subcontractor and took engine development in-house. They kept the hybrid approach but changed the fuel formula from a rubber-based mix to nylon... and then changed it back.

Branson continued to insist that it would be ready for paying passengers real soon, and planned to ride it himself shortly. But in the meantime, Blue Origin had their New Shepard ready to sell suborbital tourist seats around the same time, and they offer bigger windows, higher altitude, a more regular cadence, and more layers of safety backup. But Virgin offers a longer and more interesting flight, lower G forces, and windows in more directions. Branson did finally ride the thing, reaching about 86 kilometers altitude (which counts as space in America but not internationally) in 2021, nearly seventeen years after winning the X Prize, and fifteen after Branson started accepting money for tickets. They did this just days ahead of Jeff Bezos riding in his New Shepard, which itself had been in development for around fifteen years. They both finally got there just a couple of months ahead of SpaceX sending tourists on a multiday orbital flight.

Virgin Orbit

So in the meantime Virgin took a stab at orbital launches. Not with a spacecraft, but just with a little carbon fiber rocket which is also launched from under a carrier plane. So it’s basically similar to a Pegasus in concept, but liquid fueled. They have a long way to go before they can ever take tourists to orbit... and now they will probably never pursue that. They spun off the satellite launch effort into a separate company called Virgin Orbit.

The LauncherOne rocket is a two stage carbon fiber kerosene burner with fins at the back, with a single engine they call the NewtonThree on the first stage, and a smaller NewtonFour on the second. NewtonFour is restartable. Newtons One and Two never flew — they were inadequate. Those were pressure-fed; the new ones have turbopumps. The first stage also has small solid motors to give it an initial forward shove. In free fall the NewtonThree might suck in an air bubble, so they make sure all the fuel is pushed to the back before they light it up. Such startup thrusters are often found on upper stages, and are known as “ullage motors”.

And woops, with the larger engines it turned out to be too heavy for their White Knight Two carrier plane, so they stuck it under a used 747 from the Virgin Atlantic fleet, which was dubbed (sigh) “Cosmic Girl”. (The whole Virgin Atlantic airliner fleet is given names like that, many of them related to songs, like “Ruby Tuesday” or "Dancing Queen”.) At first they took off from Mojave and did polar orbits only, but that limitation didn’t last long, with a launch from Britain being added in 2022.

They began work on upgrading the NewtonThree engine to a more powerful version called N3.2, even as the original had yet to fully prove itself over multiple launches. (One reason for the upgrade effort may have been that their claimed payload capacity of 500 kilograms was more an aspiration than a reality, but this is not known for sure.) They also started work on an ion-engine kick stage, and started working toward first stage reuse via parachutes. The new push was fueled by the cash raised from going public. They were also looking at a somewhat bigger LauncherTwo, but it’s not clear how that would attach to a plane — definitely not on the wing. They looked at adding more planes too, to accommodate hoped-for cadence increases. Each one might have ended up based on a different continent.

Branson had previously worked on a deal to bring Saudi money into Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit — a billion bucks — but after one too many high profile human rights abuses by the Saudi government, he called it off and told them to keep their money.

Reusability was obviously not coming any time soon, but even in expendable mode they underpriced the Pegasus by far, and presold lots of flights. They said that having no launchpad would allow them to quite easily ramp up to a rapid launch pace, but everyone says they’ll do high cadence. Of course, they might well face stiff price competition from other new launchers such as the Electron. Virgin Orbit hoped to do about six launches in 2022, which is the same pace that Rocket Lab managed in 2020 and 2021.

One advantage of launching from under an airplane is that the whole operation is portable. They “trailerized” their ground support equipment and made a mobile mission control, so their whole launch operation could move around the world to any available airport, including ones near the equator. They could also launch in worse weather than other rockets.

But their ability to price launches competitively faced extra difficulty because they had spent several times as much money on initial development as their competitors (Rocket Lab, Astra, Firefly, etc) have spent, and that money would be tough to get back. They needed to either outdo Rocket Lab on cadence and convenience, or find a profit margin while matching their prices. The company’s finances were rather iffy, and for a while there was an ongoing question of whether they might need to scrounge up more cash to maintain progress.

They finally attempted their first test launch in 2020. The drop and ignition went fine but it failed early in the first stage burn when an oxygen pipe broke under pressure. They achieved orbit on the second attempt, early in 2021, and got their second success in mid-year with their first commercial launch. A third followed in early 2022 and a fourth in midyear, so the cadence was starting slow, but the success rate was fairly solid. And even better, this little orbital rocket wouldn’t get anyone killed. Though the risks were definitely there, as this was the only liquid-fueled orbital rocket to be launched from right next to people who couldn’t be kept a safe distance away from it.


But in early 2023, the second stage did fail when they tried to launch from Britain. And that’s when the financial birds came home to roost, and Virgin Orbit ran out of cash. Despite now being the second most successful small launch company after Rocket Lab, they closed their doors and furloughed their employees. Obviously the company had a lot of value, but that value wouldn’t be realized unless yet more investment money came forward. Branson was nowhere to be seen or heard. After a while, rumors started suggesting he might be running out of money himself.

Within days, someone did step forward: one Matthew Brown of Texas, an investor specializing in renewable energy and aerospace. The idea was that he would displace Branson as the majority owner for just $200 million. But then the negotiations apparently went sour, and he declined. Eventually the Securities and Exchange Commission sued him for making a bogus offer with money he didn’t have.

At this point they declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But they also brought back a small group of engineers to resume work on finishing their next rocket, demonstrating that they were not giving up. The company was now, according to public rumor, valued at under $100 million. Some suggested that maybe a government, such as the UK, should buy the company, as a way to essentially start a national space program at a bargain price. But the UK declined, and nobody else stepped up, which may have been shortsighted.

I had kind of hoped that whoever ended up buying in would change the name. But that ended up being nobody — the company was sold off by parts in a bankruptcy auction. Rocket Lab got their factory in Long Beach, Stratolauncher got the plane, and Launcher / Vast got their facilities at the Mojave spaceport. There will be no coming back from this. And it just seems perverse to so thoroughly destroy an outfit which was so much more successful at getting stuff into orbit than most of its wannabe competitors are ever likely to be.

LauncherOne: mass ~30 t, diam 1.6 m, thrust 330 kN, imp 2.9 km/s?, gas generator (kerosene), payload 0.5 t (1.7%), cost $24M/t, record 3/2/1 (final).