On board Virgin Orbit’s flying launchpad
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On board Virgin Orbit’s flying launchpad

January 7, 2020


(electronic percussion music) This is the Mojave Air and Space Port, a scrap of desert outside Los Angeles. It’s where Richard
Branson’s Virgin Galactic has set up shop to test
its tourist spaceplanes. But today, we’re going to get
a tour of another vehicle. It’s a Boeing 747 that’s been turned into a mobile launchpad in order to send rockets to orbit midflight. We’re here to meet Kelly Latimer, the main pilot for Virgin Orbit. It’s a sibling company of Virgin Galactic that hopes to launch satellites into space instead of tourists, but they want to do it in a way that sets them apart from most of the satellite launching
competition out there. Instead of launching
rockets from the ground, Virgin Orbit launches them from under the wing of a giant airplane — or they will if a whole lot
of tests go right first. (ringing electronic notes) This is LauncherOne, the rocket that Virgin
Orbit has developed. It’s designed to fly mounted underneath the wing of this 747, and then at around 35,000 feet, the pilot flips a few switches, and this big red clamp
releases the rocket, it falls away and then
it ignites its engine to climb into space. This way of getting to space is often referred to as an air launch. It’s not a new concept, either. Both Northrop Grumman and a company called Stratolaunch use similar systems. Air launch is also the same basic way Virgin Galactic gets its spaceplane into the sky, too. Still, this type of space travel is pretty rare, but it’s got its upsides. There is just a raw performance
advantage that we get. This is Will Pomerantz, vice president of special
projects at Virgin Orbit and the company’s first employee. If you think about two rockets
racing their way to space, one starting at Cape Canaveral and one starting under
the wing of an airplane, well the one at Cape Canaveral, which is a great facility but it happens to be at
zero feet above sea level and zero miles per hour, and our airplane is already giving us some altitude and some speed. There’s also
some flexibility you get when your launchpad can move. So if there’s bad
weather in one location, we can go somewhere else. If we’ve got five different customers that want to go to five different orbits, physics is going to dictate that
we want to launch them from five different places. Instead of having to build
five different launch sites, we just pick up our whole launch system and we fly it anywhere it wants to go. It’s a Boeing 747. It’s about as transportable as
you can possibly make it. The 747 that Virgin Orbit uses is an old passenger aircraft, from Virgin Atlantic, aptly nicknamed Cosmic Girl. But the plane looks a
tad different these days. The entire coach section
has been completely gutted, all of its seats removed and
the overhead bins taken out. Yeah, we basically pulled the entire main deck interior
out to get rid of weight, so we got rid of about 50,000 pounds. So what it gives us is the lighter weight, the better performance we get. The first-class cabin is also no longer outfitted
for rich travelers. Instead, the upstairs has been transformed into a small mission control so that engineers can oversee
missions during flight. Kelly’s job mostly revolves
around flying the plane, and she’s got a lot of
experience with that already. As a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, she flew numerous military aircraft, and she’s got experience with 747s, too, having flown the airplane that
carried the space shuttle as well as a flying
observatory called Sofia. This mission may start off like a regular 747 flight, but
it ends much differently. Once the rocket gets fully fueled, we’ll come on board the aircraft, start the engines, taxi out
to the end of the runway, and take off just like
a conventional airplane. If anything were to go wrong, we want to be able to
jettison it at any point, so we have a specific routing to get us out over the water. Then when it comes
time to drop the rocket, Kelly maneuvers the plane, pitching it up at a 30-degree angle. That orients the rocket toward
space, and if everything’s at the right altitude and
speed, the rocket drops. So at that point,
the rocket’s on its own. We pull off to the right, and meanwhile, the rocket counts to five
and then lights its motor and goes out to space. So basically, you ditch
it and run. Pretty much, yeah. Kelly does have to
make a few accommodations when flying a plane with a rocket attached. When the rocket is fully fueled, it’ll add an extra 50,000 pounds, putting more weight on the
left side of the plane. That means they’ll have to add more fuel to the right wing to offset the imbalance. But up until now, Kelly’s
been flying LauncherOne without any fuel in it, making the vehicle something of a ghost. So what does it feel like for you whenever you’re flying, knowing that you have essentially a rocket or a missile attached to your plane? What’s funny is that when we flew it the first time with the rocket attached, there actually was so little effect for the rocket being
there that we were like, “You know, if we didn’t have
this panel in front of us and somebody telling us that
there is a rocket on board, I’m not sure we would
actually know.” (Laughs) The LauncherOne rocket is only designed to put
small payloads into orbit, those about the size of a washing machine. Virgin Orbit is capitalizing on the trend toward smaller
and smaller satellites, thanks to cheaper consumer electronics and the standardization
of satellite hardware. It puts them in competition with launch providers like Rocket Lab, Vector, Relativity, and more than 100 other startups focused on sending small satellites to space. Virgin Orbit is still deep in the midst of its testing program. Farther out into the desert, it’s testing its small rocket
engine at this firing range and there’s a lot of complexity that comes from lighting
the engine up in midair. When you’re launching
things from the ground, if you need power for your system, you go and you plug it
in to an electrical outlet, and if you need fuel, you
plug it in to a pipeline. When you’re launching from an airplane, you’ve got to build all of that stuff so that a) it physically fits
on board the airplane, and then b) it’s safe and
it’s regulatorily appropriate to carry it on board an airplane. So while Virgin
Orbit is testing its engines, it’s also testing Cosmic Girl. The company routinely runs test flights, and recently, they’ve been flying with LauncherOne attached. Soon, the company will fill
up the rocket with water to give it a more realistic weight, and they’ll drop it
just to see if it falls like the engineers think it will. When that test happens,
Kelly will be testing out how to deploy LauncherOne
for the first time, too, switching on a series
of buttons and levers that cause LauncherOne
to fall from the wing. So this is set up to drop. You go left to right
and then one we’re done. We go close hook, back to lock, and then you go right to left… Of course, there’s
always the possibility that rockets don’t behave
like we think they will, and Kelly is prepared for that, too. Do you have contingency plans in case that dropping doesn’t go well or, heaven forbid, it ignites when you’re still carrying it? Yeah, we do. And that’s the reason for having the control set up here and really not having it tied to a lot of computer logic or data. So, at any point, we can let it go. So we basically will have some what we call go / no-go parameters or abort or knock-it-off criteria. Things start to go out of limb as to where it’s turning in a bad way, at any point in our flight, we simply unlock, arm, and then release. Virgin Orbit is aiming to do its first test launch in 2019, but there’s still a lot
of testing to do first, including that crucial drop
test. But once that happens, Kelly is excited for what comes next. That’s when the buildup
to the actual launch is going to get really exciting, really fun. We’ll find all sorts of
stuff we’ll work through and make our way through it. But yeah, the actual takeoff, knowing that we’re going to
drop the rocket for launch, is going to be very thrilling. (electronic percussion music) One last small question. Yeah? Do you have any idea of what the first payload will be… I don’t
think they can tell you. Yeah, that’s a secret. (Laughs) Fine. No information. I know nothing. Yeah. Actually, the payload? I don’t even care. I’m just going to drop it off. I’m just flying it. (Laughs)
I’m just the bus driver. I just take it to its bus
stop and let it go. (Laughs) I love it.

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  1. I'm really looking forward to Skylon getting off the ground.
    It's like this but the whole plane goes into space, atmospheric air breathing up until a certain altitude, then switches over to small tank of oxygen to get the rest of the way.

  2. Who else wishes that they were as rich as Bezos, Musk, and Branson so that they could also compete in The New Space Race?

  3. What's that old saying," I'm just a glorified bus driver…". More like Wonder woman, but with visible jet!

  4. Sounds like LtCol. Kelly has done some really neat and unique flying throughout her career: T-37 Tweetie birds, T-38 tactical jet trainer, NASA 747 Shuttle Transport System, Virgin 747 launch platform, and my favourite 747 SOPHIA observatory!

  5. This is fascinating…. but what about all that floating space junk that’s currently out in space?

  6. So… they add fuel to one wing to offset the weight from the rocket. When the rocket launches, wouldn't the plane become off balance again? Hopefully they have a means to move fuel from one wing to another…

  7. Kelly Latimer: who better to fly a 747 with a rocket attached to its wing than the person that flew a 747 with the Space Shuttle on its back

  8. So if they have to add more fuel to the opposite wing tank to balance the aircraft, what do they do when they release the rocket to rebalance the plane?

  9. The Air Force started launching rockets from planes 60 years ago. All I ask is that we stop treating this like a new concept.

  10. Another reason to feel sorry for the stratolauncher, it’s got nothing to launch

  11. Fuck they know how to waste money on dreams. And resources. These idiots are going to be the end of humanity the rate we’re going at. This dickwad, Elon musk, all wankers. We’ll never live forever or make it to another sustainable planet with the rate we’re advancing and the rate we’re sucking the planet dry. True retards of the planet.

  12. not gonna work unless they fuel the rocket immedietly before launch from the airplane. otherwise the changing temps and pressure will cause the tanks to expand/contract during ascent on the 747

  13. 747 can be launched in bad weather but not a Max-Q survivable rocket? Doesn't Storms thin out after first 18.288 kilometres? If you want more investers, design a stronger rocket with better stabilizing system.

  14. 60% of the entire middle fuelselage is just wasting space at this point. The fuels is the wings already so the fuelselage is just a waste of space.

    THEREFORE gut the stupid thing and put in a mechanism to raise and lower the rocket. Plus u have the Rockets funnels of the Rocket stick out the back so u could fit a refuelling station right being the pilot of the Plane itself.

    Wish they would have done this right off the bat so we'd have to wait less time to get to space. But ehhh kids have to learn from the bottom up how to do the space thing. So I guess its a necessary evil ain't it…….

    :////

  15. Looks interesting, why not make a hybrid aircraft and spacecraft "craft" that starts like an airplane, packs its wings and activates rockets as it is flying into space?

  16. 3:58 lights it motor??? you're launching stuff into space from the worlds largest plan at least calls its engine an engine and not a motor

  17. If more fuel is added to the right wing to offset the imbalance (4:24)

    What happens when after rocket is release? Would there be a mechanism to reset the imbalance?

  18. Not that I really mind seeing it, but really. Tight leather and heels ? Wanted to see their rocket go up…….not mine !

  19. Why would a billionaire focus on the small launch market, there are already viable companies in that market, and the larger companies will be able to put dozens and hundreds of those satellites into space at once, for the cost of a few hundred thousand each.

  20. > Air force
    > Fly the Space Shuttle carrier
    > Fly giant flying observatory
    > Now flying giant flying launch platform

    I wish I could have that kind of career, damn.

  21. Why not lauch with a balloon instead? It can go way higher than planes and you will save $xxx,xxx,xx dollars

  22. My dad was part of B-52 006 and 008 his air crew pioneered this method of launch with the x series lifting bodies. This is amazing.

  23. I'm not a super engineer that works at huge space companies, but I don't think that launching rockets from an airplane is a good idea

  24. So basically what they are saying is: the 747 can stay much longer in flight then an F16 circling around an "enemy" area and when necessary they can launch to rocket to the target. OK.

  25. The child in me is asking itself: Why not just put detachable or retractable wings ON the rocket and control it remotely?

  26. Only concern would be if the rocket fails to launch or some type of technical degree, the passengers in the airplane are in risk of danger.

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