Virgin Orbit files for bankruptcy after historic launch failure

Multibillionaire Richard Branson's private satellite delivery company never really got off the ground.
Rocket detaching from Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 jet
The announcement comes four months after the company's failed launch in the UK. Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

Virgin Orbit, the private satellite launch company founded in 2017 by multibillionaire Richard Branson, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday. The news follows the spacefaring venture’s announcement last Friday that it was terminating 675 employees, or roughly 85 percent of its total workforce.

The bankruptcy filing arrives nearly four months after the company’s disastrous, highly publicized orbital launch attempt from Spaceport Cornwall in southwest England. Meant to be the first of many similar missions from within the UK, Virgin Orbit’s unique satellite delivery system ultimately encountered a “devastating launch failure,” losing its entire nine satellite payload.

[Related: A historic first satellite launch in the UK has failed.]

Unlike would-be competitors at SpaceX and Blue Origin, Branson’s Virgin Orbit eschewed more traditional vertical rocketry in favor of a single rocket attached to the underside of a modified Boeing 747 jet. Once the plane’s human crew flew to a sufficient altitude, said rocket would detach, ignite its own engines, and cruise into low-Earth orbit to deliver its cargo as the 747 landed. While January’s “Start Me Up” mission rocket failed in its objectives, the human crew returned safely to Earth.

It’s unclear what will ultimately become of the branch within Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise, which listed $243 million in assets and $153 million in debts for its bankruptcy filing. As The New York Times notes, Virgin Orbit’s unique, relatively low-cost, and flexible launch system technology could still appeal to governments, including the US.

[Related: Why the Virgin Galactic spaceship didn’t reach orbit last weekend.]

Despite the setbacks, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement on Tuesday that “the team at Virgin Orbit has developed and brought into operation a new and innovative method of launching satellites into orbit, introducing new technology and managing great challenges and great risks along.” He added that the company had launched 33 satellites into “precise orbit” since first staring operations. Until January, four of the company’s five previous mission launches from the Mojave Desert in California were deemed successes.

Although Virgin Orbit officials vowed to push forward with future scheduled plans, industry analysts warned that the company’s future looked bleak. According to Virgin Orbit’s website, its most recent public press announcement came in February in the form of an update regarding its “UK mission anomaly.”