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Screw Up

The British billionaire Sir. Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit goes bankrupt. In other words, his rocket company founded in 2017 is out of cash and desperately looking for a buyer.

We read about this a few weeks ago, the short version about a sad day for the British aviation and space industry, and for all those who were behind the five-year startup that had been another one of his successful ventures. A few months ago, the country's ambitions to become a space power seemed to be coming true.

But in January, those hopes took a huge hit. Virgin Orbit, the rocket company had decided to carry out the first rocket launch into space from British soil.

The attempt was organized in collaboration with the British Space Agency and Spaceport Cornwall. Virgin Orbit wanted to launch nine satellites into space, which would have been a major first for the UK. However, the endeavor was a resounding failure: An "anomaly” prevented the rocket from being put into orbit.

"The data is indicating that from the beginning of the second stage first burn, a fuel filter within the fuel feedline had been dislodged from its normal position," Virgin Orbit explained mid-February. "Additional data shows that the fuel pump that is downstream of the filter operated at a degraded efficiency level, resulting in the Newton 4 engine being starved for fuel. Performing in this strange manner resulted in the engine operating at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature."

Shortly before midnight on January 9th, a camera on the Canary Islands operated by the Spanish Meteor Network caught a spectacular fireball plunging into the Atlantic Ocean. Although it looked a lot like a meteor, it wasn’t. It was a rocket with a payload of nine satellites burning up after failing to reach orbit.

Much more was burning up than a lot of expensive rocketry and cargo. The rocket had been launched not from the ground, but from high up over the Atlantic from a converted Boeing 747 jumbo jet bearing the somewhat raffish moniker of Cosmic Girl, operated by Richard Branson’s company Virgin Orbit.

Within minutes of the failure being livestreamed to the world, the company’s shares lost almost a quarter of their value. Moreover, the event has meant Virgin Orbit has declared bankruptcy, ceased operations, and laid off most of its staff.

The January 9th mission failure was also a serious embarrassment for the U.K.’s space agency. The country has never had its own launcher program. It hitched its future prospects for a “gateway to the stars” to Virgin Orbit by approving the mission, named Start Me Up, from a new spaceport in Cornwall, the western peninsular considered ideal for British launches over the Atlantic.

The nine satellites lost included four that were part of advanced programs being run by U.S. and U.K. military labs and the first satellite built by the Gulf state of Oman. Virgin Orbit was an early entrant in the market for micro-launchers, far smaller rockets than those needed for the larger, heavier payloads required by military and commercial satellite networks.

The company was spun-off in 2017 from Virgin Galactic, Branson’s pioneering but costly space tourism project, at the initiative of engineers who saw the new market as a far faster route to profits.

And it is that provenance that, with the meltdown of Virgin Orbit, renews the long-simmering question about whether Virgin Galactic, a world leader in deadlines missed, budgets busted and a string of promises never met, will ever get close to delivering the nirvana of space travel for the filthy rich that Branson has relentlessly hyped. (Galactic claims a backlog of 800 “astronauts” waiting to ride at $450,000 a pop).

The underlying problem is that Galactic and Orbit shared the same fundamental concept for launching rockets: air launch. Instead of launching from a static pad, the launches were from airborne motherships at heights of 40,000 feet or more. That removed the need for huge booster rockets needed to accelerate from ground level to the stratosphere. In the case of Galactic, this enabled crewed flights into suborbital space; and of Orbit, for delivering small satellite payloads into orbit.

Air launch was the brainchild of a maverick aeronautical genius, Burt Rutan. He designed and built the first privately funded manned vehicle to reach space, SpaceShipOne, in 2004, at a cost of $25 million provided by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

SpaceShipOne was launched from a mothership, blasted to the edge of space and glided back to Earth. Then along came the buccaneering Branson, with a lot less money and technical grasp than Allen but a lot more showmanship. Partnering with Rutan, SpaceShipOne became the genesis of Virgin Galactic.

Branson and the company promised the first passenger flight would take off by 2007—a milestone that was only finally achieved in July 2021 when Branson himself rocketed into space with two pilots and three Galactic executives. But then, as with so many previous Galactic flights, it turned out that there had been a serious glitch. The pilots had narrowly avoided an emergency landing after the craft swung off its designated course.

Have a great day,

Prof. Carl Boniface

Source: Part text taken from The Daily Beast by Clive Irving

Read the rest of the article at The Daily Beast by Clive Irving

Vocabulary builder:

Anomaly (n) = irregularity, incongruity, difference, variance, glitch, abnormality, inconsistency

Anomalous (adj) = irregular, uncharacteristic, strange

Payload (n) = cargo, load, freight, shipment, consignment, goods, contents

Raffish = [more raffish; most raffish]: not completely acceptable or respectable but interesting and attractive. Moniker (n) = (slang) a person’s name, especially a nickname or alias.

Cosmic Girl = "Cosmic Girl" by Jamiroquai is a song about a chance meeting with a woman from another world. The protagonist (good guy/hero) is surprised to see such an otherworldly being.

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