NEW YORK — Another kind of countdown hit New York City's Times Square Friday (Jan. 7) as a commercial spaceflight company celebrated joining the NASDAQ stock exchange.
Virgin Orbit, the satellite-launching company founded by Richard Branson, brought one of its 70-foot-long (21 meters) rocket, LauncherOne, to Times Square amid New York City's first sizeable snow of the year. Company leaders rang the opening bell of the NASDAQ exchange located nearby, commemorating that Virgin Orbit became publicly traded on the exchange on Dec. 30.
"It's been an incredible year for the company," CEO Dan Hart told Space.com in a phone interview. "Our launches in 2021 were picture perfect — you see it in the reflection of a customer's smile when they contact their spacecraft."
"Now going public and having a rocket at the same time in Mojave getting ready for another launch in the next few days, it just feels like the pace is picking up and we're in the right place."
LauncherOne, unlike many rockets, begins its journey on the tarmac rather than a launch pad. The vehicle is carried aloft by a customized Boeing 747 jet dubbed Cosmic Girl, which releases the rocket at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (11,000 m). The rocket falls for four seconds then its first stage fires, reaching speeds as high as 8,000 mph (13,0000 kph); a second stage facilitates payload deployment.
The NASDAQ celebration comes just days before the first launch opportunity for the company's third commercial flight, on Jan. 12. Hart said he expected the team would complete a Launch Readiness Review over the weekend.
"Every spaceflight has its own personality," Hart said. "It's a very intense time." The flight, nicknamed "Above the Clouds," will launch from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and will carry seven satellites for three customers.
The flight will carry four payloads for the Department of Defense. Details about these payloads are scarce, but the U.S. Space Force has said that they involve "demonstrat[ing] advanced space technologies."
Hart noted that national security is a key market focus for the company this year.
"LauncherOne can really be a game-changer for national security space in an era," Hart said. "When our adversaries are getting a little more aggressive in space, the ability to put a satellite into space from any place on the planet at any time to any orbit and even to do it unwarned is completely unique, and it changes the way you think about national security space."
In addition to the military satellites, "Above the Clouds" will carry two nanosats for the Polish company SatRevolution, according to a Virgin Orbit statement. The STORK-3 satellite will provide photos of Earth for the agricultural sector; SteamSat-2 will test water-fueled thrusters as a means of propulsion in space. The final satellite, Adler-1, was a last-minute addition to the manifest and will be operated by Spire Global and will study space debris in low Earth orbit to compare with existing models of the region.
Hart promised more launches to follow. "We have about six rockets in flow after this flight," he said. "We also have our first flight from the U.K. this year, flying out of Cornwall, so those will be major events."
This specific LauncherOne, which consists of flight and flight-development hardware, made its way to Times Square overnight, Hart noted, and was the same rocket that was on display in Cornwall in June in conjunction with the 2021 G-7 summit held in the U.K.
Branson himself was unable to join the NASDAQ festivities in person due to a case of COVID-19 that he called mild in a tweet posted on Thursday (Jan. 6).
That didn't dampen employees' excitement about the event, Hart said.
"There was a snowball fight that erupted around 4:30 when the rocket was completed," he said. "Times Square has always really needed spaceflight hardware — I grew up in New York and I think as a kid that was obvious to me and all my friends."