Virgin Galactic to Open LauncherOne Rocket Plant at Long Beach's Douglas Park

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LauncherOne program staff, courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Airlines may not fly into Long Beach Airport, but Mayor Robert Garcia announced today that its sister company Virgin Galactic will soon be manufacturing rockets in Long Beach to fly satellites into space.

The mayor announced in a statement today that the privately-funded company founded by Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire behind the Virgin Group, will move into a newly-leased 150,000 sq. foot facility north of the airport at Douglas Park, next to the space that had been occupied by Boeing for nearly 75 years.

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Virgin Galactic's new facility at Douglas Park.

Galactic will use the new facility, located near the Mercedez Benz preparation facility that broke ground last year, as a manufacturing site for its new satellite launch vehicle called LauncherOne, which is designed to make the launching of newer, smaller satellites more cost effective. The move falls in stride with Garcia’s promises to attract technology-based companies to the city and to make Long Beach a “true city of the future,” a sentiment echoing his message at last month’s State of the City.

"California and Los Angeles County have always been home to the true pioneers of the aerospace business,” Garcia said in a statement. “We’re thrilled that Long Beach attracted a tenant like Virgin Galactic, a world-renowned leader of the commercial space industry. This is one of the most exciting and dynamic businesses in the country, and they are bringing excellent jobs we need for the talented and hard-working aerospace professionals who already call Long Beach home."

The company also announced that it will be hosting a job fair and open house at the new facility Saturday March 7. Applicants are encouraged to visit the company’s site in the coming days to view updated job listings and information regarding the open house. Galactic expects an initial hiring class of 100 employees with an aim of growing that number as the project continues. But Vice President of Special Operations William Pomerantz said that number probably wouldn't climb too high. 

"We pride ourselves on being a very entrepreneurial company so I don’t think we’re looking to grow to the size of a space agency or a major traditional contractor, that’s one important way that we keep our costs low to our customers," Pomerantz said. "But certainly we’re going to bring a lot of great jobs to the area of Long Beach and we’re very much looking forward to the talent that already exists there."

LauncherOne is an orbital vehicle that will be dedicated to the small satellite market in both the commercial and government sectors. On the company’s website, it explains that as all of the gadgets in our lives have grown “smaller, lighter and cheaper, satellite technology has somehow gotten bigger, heavier and more expensive.” The two-stage rocket is Galactic’s answer to the growing fleet of ever shrinking satellites and their need for a smaller, more cost effective launching device.

“The technical progress our team has made designing and testing LauncherOne has enabled a move into a dedicated facility to produce the rocket at quantity,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said. “With New Mexico's magnificent Spaceport America for our commercial spaceflight operations, our Mojave facilities for WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo production, and now our new facility in Long Beach for LauncherOne, we are building capability to serve our expanding customer community.”

Instead of hitching rides on bigger, older and more expensive rockets, which give satellite companies little control of where the satellites are launched from and eventually entered into orbit, the company will attach the LauncherOne to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane—the same plane that carries its space tourism craft SpaceShipTwo— and provide the control and affordability that current methods lack. It allows the customer to be the driver, not the passenger. Being launched from a carrier plane allows the LauncherOne to be deployed from a variety of locations on both the West and East Coasts, untethering it from traditional platforms on air force bases or NASA platforms that are frequently congested and at the mercy of weather conditions. 

The launch costs expected to be among the lowest in the nation and perhaps the world, the installation of the new facility in Long Beach a boon for the local economy as several companies have already signed on to work with Galactic, with more expected by the company in the future. OneWeb Ltd, one of the companies already on board, plans to launch the largest “satellite constellation” that would provide billions of people access to high speed internet and telephone networks.

Galactic is hopeful that LauncherOne’s design, which is powered by the company’s new family of kerosene-fueled rocket engines—called the Newton—will keep prices down, while at the same time providing flexibility for its customers. Each mission carried out by the LauncherOne is expected to be able to deliver up to 500 pounds to a “low earth orbit” or 265 pounds to a “Sun-Synchronus Orbit” for less than $10 million, a figure that Pomerantz says is a fraction of the cost of existing options. 

"Right now if you want to buy a launch vehicle here in the United States the cheapest option  you can find is going run you about $50 million and they just go up from there," Pomerantz said. "Those are certainly larger vehicles that can deliver larger payloads, but what we’re finding is that there are a lot of customers now who are building smaller payloads and don’t want the excess capacity that comes with the larger rocket."

Galactic started operations in 2004 with ambitions of becoming the World’s first commercial spaceflight company, offering suborbital spaceflights to tourists at a price tag in the area of over $200,000 per flight. Galactic also branched out into launching space science missions and small satellites, prompting the development of LauncherOne. In the wake of a fatal test flight crash of Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo commercial rocket plane which killed one of its test pilots in October 2014, Branson questioned the future of the company in a blog entry at the beginning of last month. He wrote in his blog that the passion of the team reaffirmed his belief in his continued investment in Galactic.

“When this story is told in years to come, I believe alongside the bravery of Mike and the incredible tale of Pete’s survival, will stand the story of the commitment, loyalty and passion of the world’s first private astronauts," Branson's blog read. "And so Virgin Galactic goes on, with an unwavering commitment to safety and a renewed sense of purpose.”

Both the city's long history of being a hub of aviation and aerospace engineering played a role in Galactic ultimately choosing Long Beach as the home base for LauncherOne, but Pomerantz said the existing talent pool was just as integral in bringing the company here. 

"We needed a facility of the right size where we could do the kind of work that we needed to do," Pomerantz said. "Having access to an airport like the Long Beach Airport was extremely advantageous just because of the fact that we use an airplane as part of our daily operations on the launch vehicle. But what we really need more important than anything were the people, we need to make sure that we have the bright and the talented people who have some experience in this field. Being able to go to Long Beach and having all those people with real hands on experience in aviation and aerospace was definitely a strong plus for us."

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