(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.
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)
I know nothing.
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.