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Why Richard Branson's rocket company, Virgin Orbit, just filed for bankruptcy

Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747 used by Virgin Orbit, is seen in November 2022 in Newquay, England.
Hugh Hastings
Getty Images
Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747 used by Virgin Orbit, is seen in November 2022 in Newquay, England.

The company founded by billionaire Richard Branson that modified a Boeing 747 to launch satellites into orbit has filed for bankruptcy, following a high-profile failed rocket launch in January.

Virgin Orbit announced on Monday that it was seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it attempts to find a buyer for the financially struggling company.

"While we have taken great efforts to address our financial position and secure additional financing, we ultimately must do what is best for the business," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement.

"We believe that the cutting-edge launch technology that this team has created will have wide appeal to buyers as we continue in the process to sell the Company," he added.

Branson founded Virgin Orbit in 2017 as a spinoff of Virgin Galactic, his space tourism venture.

Virgin Orbit bills itself as a launch service for the "rapidly growing industry" of small satellites, and Hart said the firm had successfully launched 33 satellites into orbit.

But the company had also been signaling that it was in financial trouble.

On March 15, Virgin Orbit announced it was pausing operations to save money and seek out potential funding sources.

Then, about two weeks later, the company said it was cutting about 675 employees — or roughly 85% of its total workforce — because it was unable to secure "meaningful funding." Company officials estimated they would have to pay about $15 million in severance payments and other costs related to the job cuts.

The bankruptcy filing comes nearly three months after Virgin Orbit failed to launch a rocket into orbit from the United Kingdom.

The much-touted event was to be the first orbital space launch from British soil, with a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl set to fly 35,000 feet into the air and then deploy a rocket attached under its wing called LauncherOne into space.

Virgin Orbit later said a dislodged fuel filter likely caused the rocket to malfunction, resulting in LauncherOne and its payload of nine satellites falling back to Earth.

This week, Virgin Orbit said it got a commitment of $31.6 million in "debtor-in-possession" financing from Branson's Virgin Investments Limited that will enable it to continue operations as it works on a possible sale.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]