Virgin Galactic Opens Rocket Plant to Build Satellite Launchers

Rep. Rohrabacher at New Virgin Galactic Plant
Steve Isakowitz (left), president of Virgin Galactic, explains the LauncherOne system to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Congressional representative for California, standing at center. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic/Bob Riha Jr.)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Virgin Galactic opened its latest commercial spaceflight facility this month to build a new rocket capable of launching small satellites into orbit.

In a ceremony here on March 7, Virgin Galactic unveiled its 150,000-square-foot (46,000 square meters) plant to be the home base for the firm's new LauncherOne operations. LauncherOne is a satellite boost system that will be carried to high altitude by the now-familiar WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. This is the same craft that carries SpaceshipTwo, but these missions will ferry satellites, not humans. LauncherOne detaches at altitude and completes a journey into orbit.

The inaugural event saw about 7,000 people arriving for the ribbon cutting and job fair. On a small stage outside the massive building, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's CEO, stood with local dignitaries, including Dana Rohrabacher, a California congressman, to welcome the crowd. [Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne Rocket in Photos]

"It's great to see you!" he began. "It's an exciting day for Virgin Galactic," he continued before getting cut off as the PA system went silent. After swapping for a hard-wired microphone, Whitesides was back on the air. Commenting on the glitch, he said, "Redundancy is important in the space community. Long Beach, we have no problem!" In response, the crowd roared in approval.

Virgin Galactic's CEO George Whitesides is joined by (from left) California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, California Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Long Beach Council Member Stacy Mungo as they officially open Virgin Galactic's newest facility. Dedicated to the satellite launch vehicle, LauncherOne, the plant was christened on Saturday, March 7 in Long Beach, California. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic/Bob Riha, Jr.)

"You would think with all the rocket launches happening today, the chances to go to space would be better. Well, it is if you have a lot of money and a lot of time to wait in line to hitch a ride to space," Whitesides continued. "Not only are we going to open access to space for people, but we are also going to send small satellites into space, and do it more cheaply and more quickly through the LauncherOne small satellite launcher."

Virgin Galactic estimates that LauncherOne will carry 500 lbs. (230 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit, or about 265 lbs. (120 kg) to sun-synchronous high orbit, for less than $10 million. Already planned missions include the launches of global broadband-access satellites and asteroid-hunting orbital observatories.

Almost 7,000 people lined up to discuss employment opportunities at Virgin Galactic's new 150,000-square-foot (46,000 square meters) facility that opened in Long Beach, California, last Saturday. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic/Bob Riha, Jr.)

After a few more comments from the assembled dignitaries, job seekers moved inside the new facility to explore employment opportunities.

The plant resembles a hangar, and is where the new LauncherOne will be assembled. The announced closing of Boeing's nearby C-17 facility recently hit the aerospace community of Long Beach, so the new Virgin Galactic presence is welcome, promising to replace some of the lost jobs.

Virgin Galactic's temporary banner proclaimed the opening of the new facility at Long Beach Airport in Southern California last Saturday. Almost 7,000 people attended the combined opening and job fair. (Image credit: Rod Pyle)

"I used to work for Boeing, and I'm here to get a new job with Virgin. I'm thrilled that they have opened for business right in my backyard," said Akiko Murakami, a job seeker who arrived soon after the plant opened.

Job seekers lined up early for the combined opening and job fair at Virgin Galactic's new LauncherOne facility in Long Beach, California, on Saturday. (Image credit: Rod Pyle)

"We expect to grow the Launcher One program to 200 to 250 positions in the next two years," said Christine Choi, a company spokesperson. "It's important to note that there are a wide variety of jobs, including engineers and technicians. And, of course, there are still plenty of jobs [available] up in Mojave," she added, referring to Virgin Galactic's original facility, the Mojave Air & Space Port, still operating in the California desert about 120 miles (190 kilometers) to the north.

Job seekers lined up at specialty stations inside Virgin Galactic's new LauncherOne facility, which opened in Long Beach, California, last Saturday. The crowd was estimated to be almost 7,000 strong. (Image credit: Rod Pyle)

"This will transform space transportation," said Rohrabacher after the ceremonies were concluded. "Someday, you'll be able to take passengers from Los Angeles to Australia in a half hour … It's all very exciting."

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Rod Pyle Contributor

Rod Pyle is an author, journalist, television producer and editor in chief of Ad Astra magazine for the National Space Society. He has written 18 books on space history, exploration and development, including "Space 2.0," "First on the Moon" and "Innovation the NASA Way." He has written for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, WIRED, Popular Science,, Live Science, the World Economic Forum and the Library of Congress. Rod co-authored the "Apollo Leadership Experience" for NASA's Johnson Space Center and has produced, directed and written for The History Channel, Discovery Networks and Disney.