If you’re rich enough it is important that you fire something into space. It is important you have a space company. Elon Musk has SpaceX. Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin. Richard Branson has both Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic. It’s easy to forgot about Virgin’s air launch system, but they recently launched ten CubeSats into space for NASA and are going to test their human payload Unity spacecraft this month.
Air launch is exactly what it sounds like, but Virgin takes two approaches.
For Virgin Orbit, the satellite launching company, a Boeing 747 (they call their 747 “Cosmic Girl”) takes off into the sky with a rocket strapped under the wing. When Cosmic Girl reaches 35,000 feet the rocket is released and drops small satellites into space. The concept behind air launch is to lower the cost and increase the ease of launching smaller payloads into space.
For Virgin Galactic, WhiteKnightTwo, a custom-built dual fuselage aircraft, carries a smaller rocket-powered space plane underneath to about 50,000 feet before the suborbital (i.e., never reaches escape velocity) space plane launches into near space. Virgin has been trying variations of this program for a decade and has persisted despite tragedy and setbacks.
A new window is opening up for flights this month and the company says they’re going to try to reach space for a third time, trying to get closer to serving up the 600 flights they’ve already booked (at $250,000 a piece, no less).
As SpaceX showed earlier this month, space is hard.