Virgin Orbit Files For Chapter 11

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And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…

In a move that wasn’t totally out of the blue, Richard Branson’s satellite launch company Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy protection in the US Tuesday morning. The company had furloughed staff and halted operations last month as it foraged for extra funding which evidently didn’t materialize.

Failure To Launch

Virgin Orbit is a smaller sibling to Virgin Galactic, Branson’s space tourism company, which theoretically positioned the company as a rival to US billionaire-backed space-race companies. Branson managed to beat Jeff Bezos into space by nine days aboard a Virgin Galactic flight, but his satellite ambitions have fallen to Earth. Bloomberg reported that while Branson has fronted a total of $1 billion to keep Virgin Orbit afloat, including $60 million in the last six months, he seems to have boarded an escape pod during the company’s last desperate bid for funding.

Virgin Orbit’s woes crystallized in January when its maiden launch, and the first satellite launch ever from British soil, was a failure:

  • The company used a modified Boeing 747 as its launcher, and officials told reporters that a missing filter in the rocket’s second-stage engine may have been the culprit. “This is like a $100 part that took us out,” CEO Dan Hart said.
  • “Questions surrounding the technological reliability and capability of Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747-400 launch platforms have the potential to dissuade future investors,” Madeline Wild, an aerospace analyst at GlobalData, told The Daily Upside. But she also added that Virgin’s questionable kit wouldn’t necessarily be off-putting to potential buyers.

Bankruptcies are not uncommon in the commercial satellite sector, and they don’t necessarily signal heat death. In 2020, three satellite communications companies went belly up in the span of three months. One of those, a UK company called OneWeb, received a government bailout and has launched over 600 satellites to date. Considering the UK’s current economic health, Virgin Orbit should not expect a bailout

Insult to Injury: As if Virgin didn’t have enough humble pie on its plate, its UK broadband service got taken down by a widespread outage for a few hours early Tuesday morning. If you think a failed rocket launch is bad, try dealing with a bunch of angry Brits before they’ve had their morning cup of tea.