What can Virgin Orbit contribute to the space sector?
Virgin Orbit brings access to space for smaller companies, for universities, for environmental companies. Those which might not have had access before because it was very expensive. Our goal is to make it inexpensive and very flexible and responsible, so you can get small satellites in orbit – you don’t have to wait two years for a launch schedule to allow you to piggy back, we can say, okay we can put you up in two or three months.
I think we’re at this inflection point for space both with the companies directly working with space and those supporting space access. From where we’re based in Long Beach we can literally see other companies popping up.
How hands on has the role of Chief Test Pilot in the evolution of Virgin Orbit technology been to this point?
As far as changing the rocket itself, that’s up to the propulsion team and rocket team. As test pilots we look at impacts on the operation, which are things like our procedures, how we would handle the situation if systems don’t work, what we would do and what’s the plan. Questions such as, do we have to put some more software in to handle some of these problems versus trying to handle them manually with the launch engineers?
Being at the beginning of it we have a lot of impact on the operations and the whole programme going forward.
How important is the global network of spaceports for Virgin Orbit?
Yeah, it’s what sets us apart. Virgin Orbit could go anywhere as a horizontal launch – we can go anywhere you can take off and land a 747. That’s what makes us flexible and it also gives different countries the ability to launch easily off their soil without having to build an entire vertical launch structure.
I speak with young people from elementary school up to college and even young professionals. Virgin Orbit does a great job of showcasing the variety of disciplines needed, so we’re able to show that you don’t have to spend 20 years in the military to work in the space sector. You could be a technician, you could be a finance specialist, you could be in any number of roles to be part of this journey.
I think the more people see it and see things happening, it’s a whole different thing to see it for real than theoretically talking about space. What’s been a career highlight for you so far?
So far, the last two launches with Virgin Orbit would be my highlight. On the first launch the rocket wasn’t successful but the launch operation was completely successful. We actually proved that we could fuel a rocket on the wing, taxi out, take off, and we dropped it right on the parameters. It was the first programme that I was able to run from the very beginning, from getting the airplane, it being modified, coming up with a couple of engineers with the test programme, flying the whole test programme, figuring it all out. It has been a culmination of five years of work, and the beauty has been that we were able to come back from that first launch, find out what happened, make some engineering changes and design changes and in January those proved successful during our second launch. It’s definitely been a career highlight so far.
Will you be joining us in Cornwall for the launch from Spaceport Cornwall?
It’s too early to say, but we have a new Chief Pilot, Eric Bippert taking over for Virgin Orbit so he’ll be pressing us forward to Cornwall and Guam and to other spaceports.
I was originally employed with Virgin Galactic but I moved to Virgin Orbit to work on the test programme. I’m moving back to Virgin Galactic, to keep pursuing my goal of actually flying to space. Through our work so far with Cosmic Girl we’ve proven the concept, so the next step is taking it operational. It would be my first time in Cornwall though, so I really want to be there!
This article first appears in the special G7 June issue of Business Cornwall magazine