- Richard Branson told The Wall Street Journal that Virgin Orbit, the orbital-launch company he founded in 2017, has spent about $US1 billion on development.
- The company has not yet sent a to orbit with its Cosmic Girl mothership and LauncherOne rocket system, but it plans to before 2021.
- Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab – a competing orbital-launch company founded in 2006 – responded that his venture has spent about $US180 million on development, including a Venus mission.
- Virgin Orbit emphasised called the comparison a distraction, saying it’s providing “a class of service that has never been offered before” and has “a healthy book of business” for future launches.
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Three years ago, business magnate Richard Branson founded Virgin Orbit, an air-launch startup that aims to fly small payloads to space.
Though Branson’s venture has yet to reach orbit â€” it hopes to do that by the end of the year â€” he recently revealed the steep price of developing the Cosmic Girl carrier jet and LauncherOne, a 70-foot-long rocket that attaches to the plane’s wing, drops into the air, and then blasts toward space.
“We’ve spent about a billion dollars so far. We have budgeted for four attempted launches to go into orbit, we’ve done one of those four, [and] the next one will be before Christmas,” Branson told Daniela Hernandez, a Wall Street Journal editor, in a video interview last week at the WSJ Tech Live conference. “Obviously, we hope and expect that … successfully goes into orbit and drops off some very important payload that NASA scientists have trusted with us.”
The new mission, called Launch Demo 2, follows the company’s first demonstration launch on May 25, which failed due to an engine shutdown anomaly. Weeks of analysis discovered a breached pipe led to the dud rocket, and Virgin Orbit has since addressed the problem with a number of hardware and process improvements. If those tweaks work, Branson’s venture could soon be flying payloads as big as a grand piano into low-Earth orbit.
Spending $US1 billion on a new orbital space-launch system might seem typical. But when news of the figure spread, space industry commentators weighed in to suggest otherwise.
“That’s… a lot,” tweeted Space News senior writer Jeff Foust. Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, tweeted it “is an unprecedented amount of money for a company to spend on a small, privately developed rocket. To recoup that investment would require literally hundreds and hundreds of LauncherOne missions.”
But perhaps the most interesting comment came from Peter Beck, the CEO and CTO of Rocket Lab â€” a competing small-launch company based out of New Zealand â€” who said his outfit spent a fraction of that $US1 billion to get to orbit.
Rocket Lab: $US180 million for rockets, spaceports, and a Venus mission
Beck founded Rocket Lab in 2006. He sensed a need to fly small satellites to orbit without having to wait months or years for room on a large rocket, or spend hundreds of millions booking an entire mission.
The company has since developed a 56-foot-tall Electron rocket, which has flown 14 missions, including 12 successful flights, an early test failure, and the failure of an operational mission in July. Given increasing demand, the company will soon expand its launch operations from New Zealand to a pad at NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia.
When Twitter users began discussing Rocket Lab’s development costs in the context of Virgin Orbit’s, Beck jumped into the discussion.
“Less than $US100m on development and a total of $US180m to date including building 3 launch pads, 4 acres of production facilities, 2 mission controls, 14 flights and accounting for my mission to Venus ðŸ˜‰,” Beck said, referring to Rocket Lab’s plans for its new Photon spacecraft platform, which is designed for interplanetary travel.
Though Beck didn’t make a direct comparison to Virgin Orbit on Twitter, the two are competitors, and their development costs stand in stark contrast. Electron can launch up to about 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of payload into orbit some 500 kilometers (310 miles) above Earth at a cost of about $US10 million to $US12 million per launch. Meanwhile, LauncherOne can fly a maximum of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) â€” about 50% more mass â€” for a similar price.
It stands to reason that Virgin Orbit’s long-term costs could be lower, given that its rocket-towing Cosmic Girl â€” a stripped-down Boeing 747-400 jet â€” is fully reusable.
Yet Rocket Lab is also planning to reuse its Electron rockets. Instead of landing them on the ground or a boat, Ã la SpaceX (which developed reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket technologies for about $US390 million and $US500 million, respectively), Rocket Lab aims to use a helicopter to catch the Electron’s booster as it parachutes toward Earth.
“I don’t see how that business case closes,” Beck told Ars Technica earlier this month when asked about Virgin Orbit’s development costs â€” then thought to be between $US500 million and $US700 million. “How do you spend that much money and have a return on investment? And moreover, if you’ve spent that much money and you are where you are, maybe it’s time to have a re-think.”
‘We have developed a game-changing new way of doing launch’
Virgin Orbit may not be done spending as it works to send its first payload to orbit, Branson told The Journal, though he does not believe that is necessarily a long-term problem.
“We could spend up to sort of $US1.2 billion, but the company will be worth â€” I think, like with Virgin Galactic â€” considerably more than that, once we’ve successfully gone to space,” Branson referring to the company’s suborbital space tourism and high-speed flight company.
Business Insider contacted Virgin Orbit about the estimated development costs and tweets about it, as well as Beck’s comments about Rocket Lab’s development costs.
In response, a spokesperson called the criticisms a distraction from Virgin Orbit’s momentum, said it’s “not particularly interested in engaging with them in an ugly back-and-forth,” and added that the company’s focus “is squarely on our next flight and on serving our many customers.”
“What matters most is that we have developed a game-changing new way of doing launch â€” not an incremental improvement on 1950s technology, but a class of service that has never been offered before,” the spokesperson said.
Virgin Orbit praised the similar and privately developed Pegasus air-launch system (which dropped 55-foot-long rockets from a B-52 Stratofortress carrier plane for 30 years) as a “trailblazer,” but noted Virgin Orbit’s system is “in a different category” in terms of operations and flexibility.
“Our customers have told us that air-launch offers them something fundamentally different, and by doing so, we enable them to design systems and complete missions that could never be undertaken if not for our launch service,” the spokesperson said. “Now, we have made a sizeable impact on the industry and built up a very healthy book of business â€” and evidently attracted these kinds of comments from worried competitors.”
This story has been updated.
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