Shorthanded Virgin Orbit Postpones Launch Due to COVID-19

Closeup on LauncherOne. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Orbit has postponed the second flight of its LauncherOne booster scheduled for Dec. 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced on Saturday.

“Our latest round of contact tracing Friday evening led to a new batch of precautionary quarantines,” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “Consequently, we’ve fallen below the number of staff we feel we require to prudently and safely proceed with pre-launch operations….

“Upon receiving this information late Friday, we stepped out of a major operation, our final wet dress rehearsal, which we had already begun, and stood down the team so we could make a clear-sighted assessment before moving forward,” the company said.

Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) posted for Virgin Orbit’s operational base at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California indicated that the final dress rehearsal was to have been completed on Saturday.

Virgin Orbit tweeted that the dress rehearsal was the last major milestone before flying during a launch window that opened on Dec. 19. The hardware and flight software were ready to go despite delays caused by the pandemic.

“Through extensive use of remote work and PPE, the redesign of our launch operations, and well-trained and dedicated staff, we’ve done everything in our power to keep our team safe at work — and thus far, we’ve prevented any cases of teammate-to-teammate transmission,” the company said. “But even with these strict measures in place, as infection rates skyrocket in our communities, that is becoming a more difficult task….

“Our priority now is ensuring the well-being of our team, and to support the few who have tested positive,” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “More than anything else, we wish them a speedy recovery.”

Virgin Orbit said it is still assessing the impact of the delay and would announce a new schedule when it could do so.

The Mojave spaceport and the companies located there typically operate with minimal staff over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Little if any testing gets done until early January.

LauncherOne’s second flight attempt will carry 10 CubeSats for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) initiative. NASA also provided funding for the launch under its Venture Class Launch Services program.

LauncherOne failed during its maiden flight only seconds after the first stage engine fired on May 25. The booster, which was dropped from under the wing of a modified Boeing 747, fell into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Virgin Orbit said that engine failed after a fuel line broke. The company has made improvements to prevent a repeat of the failure.

Virgin Orbit’s upcoming launch is crucial to the company’s future. The company is attempting to raise an additional $200 million in investment. Founder Richard Branson has said $1 billion has been allocated as the company attempts to reach low Earth orbit.

Virgin Orbit suffered a serious financial blow when satellite broadband provider OneWeb cut its launch order from 39 to four. OneWeb also had an option to purchase 100 additional LauncherOne flights.

Virgin Orbit subsequently sued OneWeb over the decision.