Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne Start Me Up mission launched on the night of January 9-10, 2023 from Spaceport Cornwall (Newquay Airport, UK), failed. The second stage of LauncherOne crossed the Karman line, but the 7 small satellites carried by the rocket did not enter the intended orbit.
Great Britain is a respectable country with the 6th largest economy in the world, but unfortunately, Great Britain is not a space power. Even the first British astronaut (actually a cosmonaut), confectioner Helen Sharman, was sent into orbit at the expense of private companies, the national lottery (!) and thanks to the personal participation of the first and last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, who promised that the Soviet Union would still launch a British woman in space, despite the lack of money.
The situation is the same with their own space industry. The first and last satellite launch from the territory of Great Britain – Prospero X-3 – happened only on October 28, 1971, after which the Black Arrow missile program was stopped. And although Great Britain is part of the European Space Agency and even pays about 9% of its budget, the United Kingdom does not have the ability to independently launch satellites.
That’s why Richard Branson’s proposal to move LauncherOne launches from the Mojave Desert (USA) to Cornwall, and thus make the first launch of a satellite from Great Britain since 1971, sounded tempting. On the other hand, this is not exactly a launch from the territory, rather from an air space, because the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne is an air launch from under the wings of the Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl. And it’s also a very simple way to call any airport capable of receiving a Boeing 747 a spaceport.
The economic feasibility of Virgin Orbit LauncherOne remains in question. LauncherOne puts only 500 kg of payload into low Earth orbit, and should only become profitable with dozens of launches per year. Unfortunately, since May 2020, LauncherOne has launched only 6 times, with 2 launches ending in fiasco. It is not surprising that after the failure of the Start Me Up”mission (named after a song by The Rolling Stones, by the way), Virgin Orbit shares fell 30%.