Rocket Report: SpaceX hits success milestone, Vulcan to resume testing

Rocket Report: SpaceX hits success milestone, Vulcan to resume testing
May 2023

Welcome to Edition 5.37 of the Rocket Report! I am happy to share some good news this week, with the Vulcan rocket rolling back to the launch site for a new round of tests, and India making progress on its next-generation engine. It's great to see all of the progress in this industry.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Virgin Galactic burns through more money. The space tourism company reported a net loss of $159 million in the first quarter of 2023, compared to $93 million in the first quarter of 2022. The company said it needed the extra spending as it prepares for its first commercial flight later this year and invests heavily in its next-gen Delta spacecrafts, Payload reports. Virgin Galactic announced it will perform a final test flight in late May, sending two pilots and four Virgin Galactic employees to suborbital space.

Challenges ahead ... If all goes well, the company will commence commercial flights in late June. It has been nearly two years since Virgin Galactic last flew humans above 80 km. With its latest financials, the company faces some very serious existential questions. First of all, it must get back to flying into space more frequently and then do so safely across many flights to start generating revenue. And then it must succeed in bringing the Delta ships--which are supposed to be capable of flying a couple of times a month--into service by 2026. The company has $874 million on hand, so this is not impossible--but it will be a real challenge. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Australia axes spaceport budget. The government has cut a plan to bankroll spaceports and rocket launch facilities in Australia as part of funding cuts to the space industry, The Sydney Morning Herald reports. The Department of Industry, Science and Resources recouped $77 million in savings in Tuesday's federal budget by cutting three programs that aimed to support Australian space technology, including $32.3 million slated to co-invest in spaceports and launch sites.

Spending on space lagging ... The axing of the spaceport program in particular was bad news, said Malcolm Davis, a senior space policy analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "If we're going to have sovereign space capabilities, which was the goal, then we need somewhere to launch from," he said. Australia's existing spaceports include Arnhem Space Centre, a commercial facility in the Northern Territory. Another spaceport planned for Toowoomba in 2024, however, was thrown into doubt last month after satellite launch company Virgin Orbit went bankrupt. (submitted by Subwoofer2 and Ken the Bin)

The Rocket Report: An Ars newsletter

Ranking the UK launch companies. The website Orbital Today has published a ranking of six launch companies in the United Kingdom--Skyrora, Lockheed Martin, SmallSpark, Astraius, Newton Launch Systems, and Orbex. "This is a way to keep tabs on what these companies are doing, and how they are developing new technologies and craft that will turn the UK into a hotbed of space launch activity!" the list author wrote excitedly. I'll be honest, I have never heard of some of these companies. And the only one I feel fairly confident will ultimately reach orbit is Lockheed, which is partnering with ABL Space to launch the RS1 rocket from the SaxaVord. Both companies are also based in the United States.

And the winner is ... Orbital Today puts Skyrora atop its list, which, to be honest, seems like a brave move to me. Orbex, by the way, is at the bottom due to the abrupt departure of CEO Chris Larmour. "No new CEO has been installed as of the time of writing, so we expect the company to pull itself together slowly, if at all. The smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the Orbex PR output, as opposed to the anorak-in-motion presentations of others, makes us wonder about the company's actual progress in the first place," the website opines. Me too. (submitted by brianrhurley)

Construction begins on Scottish spaceport. Meanwhile, the launch company Orbex has begun construction at Sutherland Spaceport in Scotland with a ground-breaking ceremony on May 5, Spaceflight Now reports. This would be the first vertical launch spaceport to be built on mainland United Kingdom. Located on the north coast of Scotland, the spaceport will become the "home" spaceport of the Scottish-based business, which will use the site to launch up to 12 rockets per year for the deployment of satellites into low-Earth orbit.

An optimistic timeline ... Orbex, with headquarters, production, and testing facilities in Scotland and design and testing facilities in Denmark, is also pushing ahead with the development of its Prime rocket, which it plans to launch for the first time by the end of the year. (Don't hold your breath.) The company has signed a 50-year sub-lease with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, enabling it to direct launch site construction and assume full operational management of the new facility on the community-owned Melness Crofters Estate. (submitted by JoeyS-IVB)