Editor’s note: In 2015, Virgin Galactic opened a facility at Douglas Park to manufacture a new satellite rocket launch system, LauncherOne. In 2017, those operations were incorporated as a new firm within the Virgin Group – Virgin Orbit. The company now takes up two industrial buildings at Douglas Park, employing more than 500 people. Virgin Orbit President & CEO Dan Hart is a long-time Long Beach resident.
LBBJ: Why did Virgin Galactic select Long Beach to manufacture its LauncherOne system?
Hart: Long Beach has an incredible history in aerospace, and the area around Long Beach has a tremendous history around aerospace and space in general. The talent pool is like none other in the world. If you’re going to develop a new system, you really want to attract people who have some familiarity with it and expertise. And it has been perfect.
LBBJ: Why was the decision made to create a new company, Virgin Orbit, headquartered here in Long Beach?
Hart: When we look at how Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic are positioned right now, they’re really different markets. Virgin Galactic is pursuing space tourism, human space flight and some hypersonic kind of research. Virgin Orbit is about putting satellites into space; it’s more about orbital space flight. . . . They grew up to be geographically separate, and Galactic is primarily [operating] in Mojave. We’re primarily in Long Beach but have our important test assets in Mojave. So, it was a natural to then set them up as separate businesses.
LBBJ: Do you face any challenges in meeting your workforce needs?
Hart: You know, it’s a competitive work environment [because] there are a lot of companies in the area. There’s great talent, but there’s also a lot of great companies. But in general, the combination of the opportunity to work on a breakthrough product like a new innovative launch system coupled with the opportunity to work for an organization like the Virgin Group and Richard Branson, and his focus on not only business but a purpose-driven business, is a pretty enticing combination. So even though there are other companies in the area, we find that we get the best [talent].
LBBJ: What was the initial vision for Virgin Orbit, and how are you bringing that vision to fruition?
Hart: There is a transformation going on in space right now, and there is a community of satellite makers who are able to, with modern technology, make satellites much smaller and much less expensive than traditionally was possible. Much like iPhones and smartphones are changing the way we communicate, these small satellites are changing the way we use space and the capabilities that will come from space. One of the things these companies need is a dedicated ride to space. These small satellites grew up hitching rides on large rockets as maybe the secondary or tertiary payload. Now these small satellite companies have grown up to have business plans, revenue streams – in the government’s, case critical missions – and they now need dedicated transport to their orbit. Our company is all about unleashing that potential.
LBBJ: Can you explain how the system is designed to work?
Hart: We’re unique in launch systems in that we’re an air-launched rocket. We climb up under the wing of a modified [Boeing] 747 aircraft to 35,000 feet. The aircraft releases a rocket, and the rocket then drops for a few seconds. The first stage ignites and takes the rocket up. The second stage takes it the rest of the way, and we put our satellite into low-earth orbit. We’re geared towards serving satellites [weighing] up to about 300 to 400 kilograms.
LBBJ: Who are some of Virgin Orbit’s clients?
Hart: Besides the government clients like NASA and the [U.S.] defense department, we have a number of commercial companies. We anticipate most of our customers will always be commercial. We have contracts with OneWeb, who is putting a mega-constellation [of satellites] up. We have contracts with a company called GomSpace out of Denmark [and] SITAEL out of Italy, and a number of other companies.
LBBJ: What sets Virgin Orbit apart from its competition? And who is your competition?
Hart: Our competition really is made up of other small rockets that are coming to fruition. And what sets us apart is the use of a very flexible, reusable platform, the 747 aircraft, which gets us up to an altitude and allows us to make our rocket simpler and inexpensive.
LBBJ: Does your work here at Virgin Orbit stand to change the future of the aerospace industry, and if so, how?
Hart: The work we’re doing here will change the nature of spacecraft architectures and what’s possible in satellite constellations. We are enabling a bunch of businesses to get transportation to space they otherwise wouldn’t have. They can’t really build their business plans by depending upon being a secondary payload on large rockets. We anticipate that there will be large constellations. The amount of information that we’ll have about the earth will increase tremendously because the barrier to getting to space is coming way down with what we’re doing. Three billion or more people on the planet still don’t have good communications through Internet . . . . Our customers have plans to fix that so that the rest of the world becomes part of the digital community.
LBBJ: What’s next when it comes to aerospace innovation considering what you’re doing here, and even beyond that?
Hart: There are a few different areas we’re working on [and] that our sister company Virgin Galactic is working on. We will be working on continually improving access to space so that space travel becomes routine. It has always been the hallmark, the holy grail of launch . . . to have regular operations to space. That’s our objective. And [by] using an aircraft, we can achieve that. Not only is Virgin Galactic achieving suborbital spaceflight with humans and space tourism, but they are now looking forward on hypersonic and supersonic point-to-point transportation. There’s a really exciting set of breakthroughs that can change the way we travel, the way we communicate, the way our navigation is done, the way we understand our planet.
LBBJ: What challenges would you say are universal in the growing privatized aerospace sector?
Hart: The privatized aerospace sector is more dynamic than traditional long-term large programs. It changes probably on a month-to-month basis – what customers are doing, what technologies are available. So probably the biggest challenge we have is staying ahead of the curve there and anticipating [changes]. If you’re doing a 10-year development program on a rocket or a space mission, it doesn’t have those attributes.
LBBJ: What are the biggest unknowns for you as a business executive in 2019?
Hart: Right now, probably the biggest unknowns we have are how quickly the market will ramp up. There is all this investment that has been made. We’re in the phase of the transformation of space where there are all these players that have come in with different Series A and Series B and Series C funding streams. What we need to do is make sure that we address the customers with the highest likelihood of success and enable them. Right now, all those companies are finding their legs.
LBBJ: If a startup CEO were to ask you for your most important piece of business advice, what would you say?
Hart: I would say, focus on the purpose of your business and make sure there is clarity in what you’re trying to achieve in the world, number one. Then I would say, focus on your team and make sure that they understand that, are inspired by it and that you’re well-connected culturally as a total team.
LBBJ: What are some traits or skills every executive should strive to cultivate?
Hart: Give yourself enough time to think. It’s very easy to get weighed down by the day to day. There is an infinite number of discussions and an infinite number of tasks that you have to perform. But the most important one is to clear your mind and make sure that you have a clear compass of where you want to take the company.
Click on the Long Beach Business Podcast below to listen to Virgin Orbit President and CEO Dan Hart and Virgin Orbit employee Veronica Foreman explain what they do, how the system works, and how Virgin Orbit intends to make space more accessible to businesses.