The Pentagon is hiring Richard Branson to launch satellites to orbit.
His Virgin Orbit space company announced Thursday that it had won its first military contract: a demonstration flight that would carry “technology demonstration satellites” for the Air Force on its LauncherOne rocket by early 2019.
For years, Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been focused on preparing to fly tourists to the edge of space, where they would experience a few minutes of weightlessness and glimpse the Earth from a distance for $250,000 a ticket.
But recently, his space venture has moved in another direction: launching small satellites, a market that could be large and lucrative as satellite technology continues to improve. To meet the demand, Branson founded Virgin Orbit, which would fly commercial satellites that would beam the internet to remote parts of the world. On Thursday, the company announced the formation of a subsidiary, Vox Space, which will be dedicated to launching payloads for the Pentagon and intelligence community.
The contract comes as the military is increasingly looking for inexpensive and rapid access to space. Traditionally, launches of military satellites were a cumbersome and costly endeavor, costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. For a decade, there was a sole provider of Pentagon launch services, the United Launch Alliance, until Elon Musk’s SpaceX fought its way into the market.
But as satellites have gotten smaller, the Pentagon is looking to other companies to develop the technology to fly them quickly and affordably.
Earlier this week, Fred Kennedy, the director of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said that the military is “in dire need of new thinking and innovation,” and that “our savior” would be the growing commercial sector.
In an interview, Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart said, “We think that this is a real concrete indication of the government’s drive to use commercial space, and the agility and affordability that we can provide.”
To meet the demand, several small launch companies have taken off in recent years. DARPA is backing a Boeing effort to build a space plane that, if successful, would operate like a commercial airliner, capable of launching daily.
Rocket Lab has also developed a small rocket: Electron, which is scheduled to launch for a second test flight in New Zealand soon. A company called Vector, which was started by SpaceX alumni, also has a small launch vehicle that it says would eventually launch daily.
Earlier this year, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visited Stratolaunch, the company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which is building what would be the world’s largest airplane. The plane is so big, it would be able to fly three rockets to altitude, then release them so they could then launch into orbit.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket would also be “air launched” from an airplane, a 747 it calls “Cosmic Girl.”
Virgin Orbit is scheduled to fly satellites for OneWeb, a Branson-backed company that intends to put up a constellation of satellites beaming the internet from space.
Although the Pentagon may not provide as much business as commercial satellite manufacturers, Hart said that “there’s been a constant, steady message that the [Department of Defense] needs to become more agile, more affordable, drive innovation and pull it from the commercial industry. And we see ourselves perfectly positioned with all those.”
Davenport writes for the Washington Post.