Virgin Orbit, the startup satellite launcher founded by Richard Branson, announced Tuesday it was selling its assets and would cease operations.
The announcement came about two months after the company filed for bankruptcy and laid off about 85 percent of its staff.
When it was founded in 2017, the company became a symbol of the growing commercial space industry and vowed to revolutionize access to space by launching small, inexpensive satellites from a rocket tethered to the wing of a 747 airplane. That configuration allowed it to launch anywhere with a big enough runway, a feature that attracted the attention of the Pentagon and others, looking to get satellites to orbit quickly.
A sister company to Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit went public through a special acquisition company, or SPAC. But it did so as the investment vehicle was falling out of favor with investors, and the company fell well short of raising the $382 million it had anticipated.
Though its LauncherOne rocket did successfully reach orbit for the first time in 2021, it flew infrequently and suffered a launch failure during an attempt from the United Kingdom earlier this year.
Beyond the hype, failure still is a big part of the space industry
Despite that setback and the drying up of investment capital, the company continued to grow and spend rapidly, hiring many dozens of employees in an attempt to move fast and ramp up its launch rate. In the third quarter of 2022, the most recent quarter for which detailed financials are available, Virgin Orbit reported a net loss of $43.6 million on revenue of $30.9 million.
In an interview with The Post last month, Virgin’s CEO Dan Hart said that some key financial and operational missteps led the company to burn through hundreds of millions of dollars while producing just a handful of successful launches.
“At the end of the day, as a CEO, those are my choices, and I think about this a lot. I could have made different choices along the way,” he said. “I mean, innovation is a messy business, and you make choices and you walk out in the parking lot each day. And you wonder, did I move the ball forward? Or do we go backward today?”
He said then that the company hoped to launch one more time and attract a buyer to take it over. But that did not come to pass.
Virgin Orbit reported in a filing that it would sell its assets to three commercial space companies: RocketLab, Stratolaunch and Launcher, a subsidiary of Vast Space.
In a statement, the company said “its groundbreaking technologies, relentless pursuit of excellence, and unwavering commitment to advancing the frontiers of air launch have left an indelible mark on the industry.”