US Department of Defense books a test flight with Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne

The U.S. Department of Defense has booked a prototype flight on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne to demonstrate the capabilities of the company’s Low Earth Orbit launch service, Virgin Orbit said today.

The Space Test Program of the DOD is on the LauncherOne manifest with an expected launch date as soon as January 2019, the company said.

The contract was awarded through Space and Missile System Center’s Advanced Systems Development Directorate in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. VOX Space, a Virgin Orbit subsidiary whose existence we covered first here, was set up to handle just these types of contracts.

LauncherOne is Virgin Orbit’s two-state expendable rocket attached to a modified 747, which serves as a reusable airborne launch platform.

Virgin Orbit has recently fully assembled its rocket at a manufacturing facility in Long Beach and the company is currently testing its 747 for flight readiness now.

Once tests are done, the prototype launch will fly technology demonstration satellites and test the ability for the Virgin Orbit system to respond to rapid call ups and launches to provide affordable flights into Low Earth Orbit.

“The ability to rapidly replenish space capabilities will contribute to maintaining outer space as a peaceful resource available for the benefit of planet Earth,” said Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, Dan Hart. “I am excited that, with the creation of VOX Space, the incredible responsiveness and affordability of LauncherOne is now available to the national security market. Under Mandy’s excellent leadership, VOX Space brings a critical service to a very important segment of the market.”

Even as Virgin Orbit looks to get its first test launch off the ground, SpaceX is on what appears to be its 17th launch — carrying a super-secret payload that was brought on board through Northrop Grumman for the Defense Department.

Still, you have to start somewhere, and Virgin Orbit is starting … there.

“LauncherOne’s high-rate manufacturing capability and air-launched operations have already brought some very attractive service benefits to the commercial community, and with this contract our servicemen and women can now begin to experience those same benefits,” said Mandy Vaughn, president of VOX Space, which serves as the gateway for Virgin Orbit’s national security space activities. “We are looking forward to demonstrating a new and better way to do space launch and appreciate the innovation and creativity being demonstrated by the Department of Defense.”