Virgin Orbit Closes Up Shop

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With so many innovations in 3D printed space hardware, it’s sad to witness the demise of Virgin Orbit  (NASDAQ: VORB). At its peak, the brand was valued at $3.7 billion. Unfortunately, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 4, 2023, after failing to find funding. As a result, British billionaire Richard Branson’s rocket business will cut 85% of its workforce and cease operations for the foreseeable future.

After Virgin Orbit’s failed launch attempt last January, the company came spiraling down. Its LauncherOne was set to blast off from Spaceport Cornwall and become a historic first attempt to launch satellites from British soil. However, an anomaly led to the rocket’s premature shutdown and failure to reach orbit.

At the time, the company stated that even though the mission did not achieve its final orbit, the effort showed that space launch is achievable from UK soil. But that was not enough, and when it set out to secure long-term funding needed to help it recover from its rocket failure, it didn’t find it. By March 15, the company halted operations and furloughed nearly all its employees as it tried to finalize a new investment plan, Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing a source.

Moreover, between December 1, 2022, and March 31, 2023, Virgin Orbit’s stock price lost more than 90% of its value, dropping from $2.80 to 20 cents per share, far from its $9.70 IPO share price.

LauncherOne was spotted trying to fly to orbit. Image courtesy of Virgin Orbit.

Looking back

A Virgin Galactic spinoff company, Virgin Orbit, began scaling its rocket manufacturing operation and space solutions business in 2017 and incorporating 3D printing where it worked. Many times in the past, Branson has described how his company has been leveraging advanced additive manufacturing through a partnership with machine tool developer DMG Mori to reduce engine manufacturing cycle times by tenfold compared to traditional manufacturing.

The 3D printing technologies used by Virgin Orbit engineers had been built into a state-of-the-art rocket manufacturing and testing facility with automated equipment, allowing the company to, for example, build tanks in days instead of months, which is usually how long it takes with conventional rocket production.

Virgin Orbit’s Kevin Zagorski, a propulsion advanced manufacturing manager for the LauncherOne Program, is among the hundreds of brilliant minds leaving the company. Back in 2020, 3DPrint.com was lucky to interview the engineer and discuss everything from designing and building spacecraft with 3D printing to the transformative impact of the technology in the aerospace industry.

During our interview, Zagorski gave us a powerful statement: “AM is the future of how rockets will be designed and built.” For 3D printing professionals and enthusiasts, these are probably the best words to hear.

In Zagorski’s final post about Virgin Orbit, he reflects upon the last ten years working with the Virgin brand and some of the incredible hardware that was 3D printed for rockets.

“Alongside many of my colleagues, today is officially my last day with the LauncherOne program at Virgin Orbit. Ten years is a long time to do anything but I was fortunate to have opportunities to be involved in so many different projects during that time. From building a desert test site from scratch to the first engine hotfire to powerpacks, MDCs, stage tests, drop tests, first flights, failure investigations, COVID-19 ventilators, four consecutive flawless launches to orbit, developing incredible 3D printed hardware and so much more.

“Above all, the most important things I will take away from this experience are the memories of the professional and extremely talented teammates I’ve worked with and learned from over the years, from the first dozen engineers sketching out questionable rocket part designs in Mojave to the final seven hundred fifty in our honest-to-god rocket factory in Long Beach. More than anything else, I will remember my current and former colleagues who taught me how to be a better engineer every day by the example of their own hard work and dedication. Thank you all. No matter where you land, you will always be a part of my team,” concludes Zagorski.

Kevin Zagorski (left) and his team say goodbye to the Virgin Orbit facility. Image courtesy of Kevin Zagorski via LinkedIn.

Struggling with rocket launches

There has been a lot of hype around rocket launches in recent years, and although many have been successful, failure is still a big part of the space startup scene. The last few months have been rough for many rocket firms, but Virgin Orbit is the first to go down. Other space companies also leveraging AM technologies, like Relativity Space, ABL Space Systems, and Astra, failed to deliver their rockets to orbit.

Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket, the world’s first 3D printed launcher demo, attempted to liftoff in its March 22 debut but failed. Last January, ABL’s efforts to put a satellite launcher into low-Earth orbit (LEO) from Alaska’s Kodiak Island failed after the rocket crashed back to the launchpad, destroying the facility. Finally, in the summer of 2022, Astra’s Rocket 3.3 came crashing down after failing to reach orbit and deliver a pair of shoe-box-sized satellites.

A long exposure view of Relativity Space’s first Terran 1 rocket streaks toward space before failing. Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

Tech layoffs

So far, in 2023, more than 130,000 workers in U.S.-based tech companies have been laid off in mass job cuts, according to tracking site Layoffs.fyi. In January alone, more than 60,000 people lost their jobs in corporate layoffs in the country. Moreover, tech layoffs are rising, according to experts. In aerospace, companies like Boeing, Orion, and Collins Aerospace announced they were eliminating jobs (primarily in finance and human resources) as they chose to outsource work. The latest Virgin Orbit news discourages a space industry that shows signs of a booming force and an attractive application for 3D printing technologies to thrive. Coupled with other launch failures and slimmer funding, it will be a challenging year for space startups everywhere.

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