Virgin Orbit, the low-Earth orbit small payload launch company that was spun out of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, has filed for bankruptcy protection with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The bankruptcy filing follows weeks of bad news for the company, including a pause on all operations, a brief hunt for more money to continue as a going concern, and massive layoffs to try to right-size to the company’s actual available budget, which today’s news essentially confirms was non-existent.
Before this fast and furious couple-week meltdown, Virgin Orbit had already shown signs that it was essentially on life support: the company’s marquee first flight from a brand new British spaceport in January failed due to an anomaly, and there was very little indication of when another attempt might arrive.
Virgin Orbit spun out of Virgin Galactic way back in 2017, as the Branson-backed space company divided its efforts into two separate avenues of focus: Galactic would pursue human spaceflight, targeting suborbital trips for scientists and wealth thrill-seekers. That has borne some fruit but also hasn’t yet achieved the scale and cadence of operation that it aspired to have accomplished at this stage. Orbit, meanwhile, aimed at delivering small payloads to low-Earth orbit, using small rockets that launched from the wings of a large carrier ship, a modified 747-400 commercial passenger aircraft.
The benefits of this approach were meant to be flexibility since it theoretically meant launches could take place from any existing airfield capable of hosting a 747 with some adaptation. It was also supposed to usher in lower launch costs for customers who only needed to send up very light spacecraft.
Virgin Orbit will seek a sale of the entire company or its assets as possible recourses to resolve its bankruptcy status, the company said in the filing.