Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think.
This week: Virgin Orbit reads Chapter 11, Starship closes in on a launch date, and we meet the four astronauts headed to deep space on Artemis II.
🚀 🚀 🚀
After several weeks of uncertainty, Virgin Orbit (VORB) filed for bankruptcy, in a manner that allows the company to continue to seek a purchaser. It’s the first major “new space” rocket maker to go under, and it’s unlikely to be the last.
For a moment there, it seemed like an investor named Matthew Brown had emerged to rescue the firm with a $200 million injection of capital. That deal fell apart amid questions about Brown’s claims of being a major money manager, which I documented exclusively for Quartz last week.
The bigger question is whether anyone could have rescued Virgin Orbit. The company started brightly, spun out of the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic with what appeared at first to be a much more achievable business model: updating the air-launched rockets of the past to deliver small satellites to orbit, with the ability to be relatively location agnostic and more flexible than ground-launched rockets.
Two things stood between Virgin and success: One was the size of their rocket, and the second was its its cost.
Virgin’s LauncherOne could only put a few hundred kilograms of cargo into orbit. That meant it could only target the smallest satellites or individual replacement spacecraft for large constellations. But at a cost of $12 million or more per launch, that left the company far pricier than less flexible but more efficient SpaceX ride share launches. Rocket Lab’s Electron carries similarly sized payloads to orbit, but for $7 million a launch—nearly half Virgin’s price.
Virgin’s costs were driven by the more than $1 billion spent developing the rocket and launch system. That’s a huge investment, even for rocket-making: SpaceX’s much larger expendable Falcon 9 cost about $400 million, while Rocket Lab had raised about $260 million when it got the Electron flying regularly. Maybe—maybe!—a regular launch cadence could have amortized the costs of the developing the vehicle and its infrastructure, but Virgin Orbit only sent its rocket to space four times, suffering two failures.
There will be recriminations ahead. Virgin’s COO, Tony Gingriss, told employees in a goodbye email that “you simply did not have the leadership or opportunity to demonstrate to the world what you can fully do and how this product could be an enduring force in the market.” As with any failed effort, it’s possible that better execution and more creative solutions could have saved Virgin, but it’s not clear whether the initial design decisions left the company’s engineers enough margin for success.
The impact of Virgin’s bankruptcy will reach across the space sector: The company owes between $100 and $500 million to a variety of creditors, and some of its largest debts are to publicly-traded space companies like satellite operator Spire and component supplier Redwire, each of which is owed more than $1 million. Virgin also owes the US Space Force $6.7 million (presumably, refundable launch deposits) and software provider Arqit nearly $10 million.
The prospects for Virgin Orbit will be closely watched. Space sector analysts tend to think that failed launch vehicle businesses don’t have much value. It will be interesting to see if anyone thinks Virgin’s air-launch tech can make a second go once it is stripped of its huge cost basis in bankruptcy. Otherwise, we may see the company’s assets—test stands, computers, and one heavily-modified 747—auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Ingenuity, NASA’s autonomous helicopter on Mars, was expected to make its 50th flight on the Red planet yesterday (we’ll have to wait for the rover to catch up and confirm success.) The ‘copter, something of a last-minute addition to the Perseverance mission, has exceeded expectations and keeps setting new distance and speed records. This image, made by a camera onboard the Perseverance rover, shows the helicopter taking off in the distance for a March 14 flight. Shades of David Lean, no?
How’s your company doing with remote work?
Not every employer has handled the WFH shift gracefully—but we want to hear about those companies who are doing it right.
Submit your company for our annual Best Companies for Remote Workers report, and tell the world.
An Apple exec will lead the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost. Doug Beck, until recently an Apple executive who has led the company’s global education, health, and government business, will take over the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a US government agency that helps frontier tech start-ups work more effectively with the government. The agency has worked on space radar with the company Capella and rapid launch with Astra and Virgin Orbit. Beck is a captain in the US Navy Reserve.
Starship is closing in on its first launch. The Federal Aviation Administration listed April 10 as a potential launch date for SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle in a planning notice, with April 11 and 12 as back-ups. Those days are still unlikely, since the agency still hasn’t issued a license for the much-awaited debut mission, and there are concerns that a last minute legal challenge of the company’s environmental impact statement could add more delay.
SDA has satellites. The US Department of Defense’s Space Development Agency is operating its first dozen satellites; 10 that will be used as communications relays, and two are modified SpaceX Starlink satellites equipped with missile-detecting sensors. More satellites are expected to launch in 2024 and 2025.
Artemis II has a crew. NASA announced four astronauts who will orbit the Moon on a 10-day trip during the second Artemis mission, expected to launch in late 2024. Three Americans and one Canadian—Reid Wiseman, Christina Koch, Victor Glover, and Jeremy Hansen—will be the first humans to visit deep space since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. Telling them about it all at once—like rocket science—wasn’t easy.
The new, new rules of the road. The Space Safety Coalition, an organization of orbital stakeholders, has updated its best practices (pdf) for space operations. The group added new procedures to coordinate maneuvers when satellites are coming close together, and condemned activities that result in the creation of space debris, like anti-satellite missile tests. There are 27 organizations signed on to the document, but notable absences are SpaceX and OneWeb, operators of two of the largest commercial satellite constellations.
This was issue 175 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your predictions for who picks up Virgin Orbit’s assets, when Starship will launch, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.