THE NEW SPACE RACE: Virgin Orbit’s Swift Descent.
Virgin Orbit paused all operations March 16, furloughing all of its more than 750 employees. It’s reportedly scrambling to avoid a bankruptcy filing. The company was founded in 2017 by billionaire Richard Branson.
Up to now, there’s been a relatively limited number of space startups able to demonstrate a strong enough track record to threaten SpaceX’s vice grip on government contracts. These include Relativity Space, which is gearing up for its third launch attempt of its first 3D-printed rocket this week. There’s also Impulse Space, which will launch its first satellite to transport payloads in space on a SpaceX flight by the end of this year and is also partnering with Relativity to send a lander to Mars. And Long Beach-based Rocket Lab is also a player, having sent a reusable rocket into space on July 4 of last year.
But each of these companies has found the road to launch is often packed with speed bumps, and none have been able to truly challenge SpaceX’s dominance of regular, affordable launches.
It remains to be seen how the fallout from Virgin Orbit’s collapse affects its big sister company, Virgin Galactic. Virgin Orbit is technically a spinoff of Virgin Galactic – another space-focused pet project of Branson that’s focused on commercial spaceflight (focused on human space tourism, rather than cargo).
It’s easily the most exciting time for space enthusiasts since the race for the Moon but not all of these startups can survive.