Start Me Up: Virgin Orbit rocket takes flight from Cornwall

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Questions were tonight being asked about why the UK’s first-ever space launch went ahead despite warnings that the project was not ready, Express.co.uk can exclusively reveal. The botched Virgin Orbit launch at Spaceport Cornwall on January 9 “only had a 50/50 chance of success” and ended up as a multi-million-pound write-off.

One Government source, who attended the launch, feared his life and the lives of 2,000 people watching, could have been put at risk and the rocket could have “blown up half of Cornwall”.

Other MPs are demanding to know if Government pressure was applied to Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall to create “a good news story” as the country faced so many challenges.

Concerns have also been raised in Westminster as to why licences were granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) just days before the launch.

In an official transcript which details the leadup to the launch and seen by Express.co.uk, staff attached to the project claimed:

  • The team had identified an “issue” with the launch on January 4.
  • Success on January 9 was “50/50,” and the team had identified “a few technical risks.”

  • A Spaceport Cornwall contact stated just 48 hours before takeoff: “If they cancel now for anything but weather, there will be a meltdown.”

Other sources within Spaceport Cornwall say they were under immense “pressure” from the Government to go ahead with the launch.

The mission initially went to plan with LauncherOne, the two-stage orbital rocket, successfully deployed from Cosmic Girl — the modified Boeing 747 which was carrying it. It hypersonic speeds and reached space.

But while its first stage separated successfully and the second stage ignited, issues arose during the firing of its second stage engine. The rocket failed to reach orbit and release its payload of various commercial and governmental satellites. Its fiery re-entry was captured on video by an observer in the Canary Islands.

The failure has been put down to an unidentified “anomaly” and a full investigation is underway.

While astronautics expert Gabriel Elefteriu does not think lives were put at risk, he says that the revelation of the prior-known risks “conforms” with what he has heard and that he is “concerned” about the possibility of outside “pressure” to make the launch a success.

He added: “This is the first launch from UK soil and there was a degree of hesitation from the CAA in issuing the licensing. But the decision to launch has to take into account technical assessments. It does not concern me how long it took to get the licences, the next one will be much quicker.

“There are many moving parts – part of the licensing process has been building up the capability in the CAA to actually assess it. What is concerning is the technical issues and the probabilities they were operating on.”

Mr Elefteriu, who is a Policy Fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy, added: “I won’t put a number on what I would want for a probability of success, but it’s fair to say you don’t want to launch on 50/50.

“This launch has been delayed for a long time. It was originally to happen in 2021, then in 2022. Finally, it happened in 2023. I can see how people would have become anxious – but I don’t think it is on one person – it is up to those on the ground to give the green light.

“We need to be careful about people shifting the blame here. This requires a full investigation.”

What is known is that Virgin Orbit’s previous launches have all taken place in the “desert” conditions of Arizona and everything on board the modified Boeing 747 went through vigorous health and safety requirements.

Professor John Zarnecki, Emeritus Professor of Space Science at The Open University, told the Express: “Every component that goes into a rocket launcher will have gone through a programme of testing.

“The entire rocket will have undergone static firings. Then on top of the programme of testing, there is the actual record of the success and failure of that particular rocket. The rocket we are talking about had been launched five times before January 9 with one failure and four successes.”

To carry out spaceflight activity in the UK spaceport and launch operators must also be licensed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

As part of their licence application, spaceport and launch operators are required to submit an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE).

Virgin Orbit worked closely with a number of partners to prepare for the launch, including the United States Department of Defense and the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

A spokesman for the FAA told the Express: “Virgin Orbit is a US company. An FAA licence is required for any US company to conduct a commercial launch or reentry anywhere in the world.

“In November 2022, the FAA modified a pre-existing Virgin Orbit vehicle operator licence to include launches from Spaceport Cornwall.”

Documents seen by the Express show the full AEE for the launch was undertaken in July 2022.

But a contact on a call with the FAA following the failed launch told the Express that the CAA then “rushed to grant their licence”.

The first launch window of 2023 was pencilled in for the week of December 14, but it was delayed due to “outstanding licences” and “additional technical work needed to establish system health and readiness”.

Tim Johnson, Director for Space Regulation, said at the time: “The UK space regulation process is not a barrier to a UK space launch. Virgin Orbit has said in its statement this morning that there are some technical issues that will need to be resolved before launch. These in no way relate to the timing of when a licence will be issued by the CAA.

“Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity. Spaceport Cornwall’s licence already permits Virgin Orbit to undertake its testing programme prior to launch. Our dedicated team has been working closely with all partners to assess applications and issue the remaining licences within the timelines we set at the outset.

“We continue to work with Virgin Orbit, and other stakeholders, to play our part in delivering a safe UK launch.”

There are now questions over how much pressure was applied and from where to go ahead despite some concerns about technical readiness.

Prof Zarnecki, who is also the Director of the International Space Science Institute says the Government “put a lot of eggs in one basket”.

He added: “I repeat that with a record of one failure out of five prior to this launch, there is clearly a significant risk. I think the Government had rather unwisely put a lot of eggs in this particular basket.

“They were after a good news story amongst all the c**p that is around at the moment. They should have spoken to people like me first.

“I remember that President Mitterand was present at the first Ariane 5 launch – he was not happy when it ended up as a giant fireworks display. So that is probably why there was some pressure.”

The CAA issues launch and range licences to Virgin Orbit to undertake launch activities from December 21 – just days before the planned launch.

Public safety, the environment and international obligations were among the statutory tests Virgin Orbit had to satisfy to secure licences.

A CAA spokesperson said: “Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity and public safety lies at the heart of our decision-making.

“The UK’s regulatory framework is on a competitive footing with our international regulators, and we continue in our role as the UK’s space regulator in assessing a range of applications from the UK space industry.

“Both Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall demonstrated that they met the licensing requirements required for UK launch.”

The UK’s Space Accident Investigation Authority (SAIA) and the FAA have announced they will jointly oversee the Virgin Orbit investigation into the system “anomaly” that occurred during the firing of the rocket’s second-stage engine.

But Shadow Science Minister Chi Onwurah wants to take things further and says urgent questions must be asked of the Government’s strategy.

She said: “We have a fantastic science and space sector here in the UK which can be the basis for great prosperity.

“As scientists, we make mistakes and learn from our experiments. But it’s absolutely critical that scientists and engineers set these parameters themselves.

“I’m very concerned if there was any interference from Government which placed them under pressure. Questions need to be asked.

“It’s clear that the Government is moving from one crisis to another, pushing to be a ‘science superpower’ and are desperate for a success from their botched Brexit deal.

“But you don’t get success from sticking plaster science. You need a long-term strategy, a proper industrial strategy and a working regulatory framework in place, not a last-minute scramble for superpower status.”

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the company “will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process”.

The UK Space Agency has added that they will be working closely with Virgin Orbit “as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks”.

To date, £20million of public funds have been invested in upgrading Newquay Cornwall Airport to host the new Spaceport Cornwall, with facilities to support horizontal launches.

It leaves a huge black hole in Government funds – especially with an impending investigation into the launch – and shares in Virgin have plummeted since.

Richard Branson’s already financially troubled company has now confirmed it will return to the US to complete its launch.

The company said last week it “also anticipates returning to Spaceport Cornwall for additional launches” later this year.

But whether that transpires is yet to be seen. Express.co.uk has contacted Virgin for comment and clarification.

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