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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space company is spinning off its LauncherOne rocket program into a separate firm to better position itself to serve the booming small-satellite industry, the company said Thursday (March 2).

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides will hold the same role in the spin-off, called Virgin Orbit, with day-to-day operations now in the hands of Dan Hart, a veteran Boeing executive hired away to become Orbit's president.

"It's been clear to me that there's been something changing, and I've really admired a lot of the bold moves that have gone on in the industry over the last five to 10 years, where people are doing commercially what was once only done with large, large government-funded programs," Hart said in an interview with Space.com. [Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne in Pictures]

An artist's depiction of a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket being air-launched from its Cosmic Girl mothership. Virgin Orbit is a spinoff company from the space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
An artist's depiction of a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket being air-launched from its Cosmic Girl mothership. Virgin Orbit is a spinoff company from the space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

"My favorite times in my career have always been to driving teams to aggressive goals and achieving those," Hart said. "I just see this team as tremendously capable. It's kind of an all-star team, driving toward an objective and doing really well against that with a greater purpose.

"I've had a great journey across Boeing through ELVs [expendable launch vehicles] and the Delta program, missile defense systems, satellites big and small — so I've really enjoyed that. I just see this as a logical next step in my journey," Hart said.

The LauncherOne program, based in Long Beach, California, intends to serve the burgeoning small-satellite industry by offering low-cost, quick-turnaround launch services to orbit.

With a target price of below $10 million per flight, the air-launched LauncherOne will be able to carry 440 lbs. (200 kilograms) into standard sun-synchronous orbits, or more than 880 lbs. (400 kg) to low Earth orbit. The debut flight is targeted to launch before the end of 2017. [Flashback: Virgin Galactic Unveils LauncherOne (Video)]

An artist's illustration of a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket carrying a small satellite into orbit.
An artist's illustration of a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket carrying a small satellite into orbit.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Ultimately, Virgin Orbit should be capable of manufacturing "a couple of dozen or more launch vehicles per year," Whitesides said.

"When we got started a few years ago, we were at a lower number," he added. "With the investments we've made and this big manufacturing facility we have here [in Long Beach], we have the capacity to scale."

Over the next five years, thousands of small satellites are expected to need rides into orbit, with big global networks in development by OneWeb, Planet, SpaceX and other firms in the United States and abroad looking to provide global high-speed internet and communications, imagery and other services.

"If you look at market projections, they are looking at literally thousands of satellites to be launched over the next five years," Whitesides said. "Many of those were announced over the past couple of years.

"These are all really encouraging trends — we think mostly due to Richard Branson having a good nose for what's next that LauncherOne will be coming to market at the right time," he added.

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