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UK Space CEOs and Virgin Orbit Customers Address the Launch Failure

By Mark Holmes | January 17, 2023

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl aircraft at Spaceport Cornwall. Photo: Virgin Orbit

It has been quite a week for the UK space industry. What was meant to mark a new era of space launch has sadly been put on hold after Virgin Orbit’s launch failure just over a week ago. The mission, “Start Me Up,” suffered a failure on Monday Jan. 9, and an investigation is underway to find the result of anomaly. Virgin Orbit has said it hopes to return to the newly inaugurated Spaceport Cornwall in the future.

Via Satellite spoke to two of the customers on the mission, In-Space Missions and Space Forge, about the setback.

In-Space Missions designed and built the primary payload — two Prometheus-2 satellites alongside Airbus Defence for the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s Defense Science & Technology Laboratory. Doug Liddle, CEO of In-Space Missions, spoke to Via Satellite the morning after the failed launch and admitted he had been in a “bad place” and going through “various stages of grief” when reality hit. Yet despite this setback, he believes there is much to be proud of.

“It is a bit like when the Olympics comes to a country, you create this ecosystem. A lot of stuff gathers around it, and even though the Olympics is finished, you are left with something. There is a legacy. The legacy is really strong down in Cornwall and the United Kingdom. Nobody is turning around and saying we are not going to do this again. Everyone is desperate to do this again. It plays really well to the British spirit. If something goes wrong, you have the plucky Brit mentality and say and ‘We are going to fix it,’” he said.

Liddle would still launch with Virgin Orbit in the future. “I would launch with them from Mojave, New Mexico tomorrow,” Liddle said. “Would I launch from them out of the U.K.? They have really good people. As soon as they understand what caused the failure and fix that process, I would launch with them. You can look at every launch vehicle — all of them have had failures. You figure it out and do it right next time. You have just seen Arianespace Vega C fail and that is seen as gold-plated. It hasn’t put me off Virgin Orbit.”

Unfortunately for In-Space Missions, this is not the first time in recent times it has been on the wrong end of a failed launch. In 2020, the company lost a satellite when a Rocket Lab mission failed. Liddle compares the impact of the two failed missions on In-Space Missions’ business. While In-Space Missions developed the satellite for the Virgin Orbit Launch, the end customer was the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Liddle said there is not much financial impact for In-Space this time.

“The Rocket Lab one hit us worst. We were a smaller company. We didn’t have a big brother owner at that time. We were much more financially fragile. Once we launched, we were going to deliver services from that satellite. That was tough, really tough,” he said. “This one was less so. It is very painful for our customer. It is more on a personal level. There is a pride. We wanted to showcase what we had. We don’t know the impact of future business growth and work. It is unknown what the impact will be from that perspective. Financially, there is not much impact really.”

Liddle admits it felt like “Groundhog Day” as history was sadly repeating itself for In-Space Missions. He recalled stepping out of the tent where there was a big screen showing the launch and his chief engineer coming up to him to tell him what was going on.

He added, “My chief engineer came out, and told us that the second stage had not made it to orbit and I assumed he was making a weird joke, and he said ‘I would not joke about this.’ It was just this heartstopping moment. I kind of felt all the difficult stuff had happened, the plane dropping that rocket off was a really hard thing to do and they had done that, and that had worked.”

Space Forge, an exciting United Kingdom space startup, was another customer on the mission. The company, founded in 2018, is developing a fully returnable and relaunchable satellite platform, to unlock the benefits of space for manufacturing and experimentation at scale. The key technology it is developing is centered on making access to space as easy as possible and managing how to return platforms from space.

Joshua Western, CEO and Co-founder of Space Forge admitted to Via Satellite that his team is “devastated” by what happened. He said while the launch failure was a “surprise” it was not a “total shock.”

“We designed, built, and qualified this satellite in five months — which was no mean feat. But we are looking forward. Our ForgeStar-1 is due to be launched later this year, and that is a more capable satellite and will be the demonstration of in-space manufacturing capabilities.”

Yet Western does not believe this failed launch will have a lasting repercussion on the U.K. space industry.

“Space is hard, and everyone in the industry knows that. This was an incredible opportunity for us to have been a part of a historic first for the U.K. and we will without a doubt launch a ForgeStar platform from the U.K. when the opportunity presents itself again,” he said.

Like In-Space Missions, Space Forge retains a strong confidence in Virgin Orbit. “We are in an industry where this is part of the process. We are by no way deterred from launching with Virgin Orbit again. We back them and everything they stand for — providing agile access to space and ensuring space is used for good. If anything, I now have more confidence in selecting Virgin Orbit as a launch partner. They’ll fix the issue and will have a more reliable launcher,” Western said.

Western said as this was a test mission, the impact to Space Forge could have been greater. The company has its next launch lined up for later in the year and is on track with delivery. It is pushing ahead to deliver the launch of Wales’ first satellite in 2023, and the world’s first return of a satellite platform in 2024, Western added.

Western says Space Forge has confidence that all of the payload customers and Virgin Orbit will recover from this.

“This is not unusual in this industry and Virgin Orbit has a wealth of data from their previous successful missions that have allowed them to identify the anomaly which they are now working to solve. We are confident that we will see them launch from the U.K. again as early as this year,” he added.