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Virgin Orbit lays off most staff over funding struggles

Virgin Orbit has laid off most of its staff after failing to secure a funding lifeline to continue with the development of its space solutions business.

In comments reported by CNBC, Dan Hart, the company’s CEO, told employees at a meeting on Thursday that Virgin Orbit would cease operations “for the foreseeable future.”

Hart added that the company had “no choice but to implement immediate, dramatic, and extremely painful changes,” which include laying off 85% of Virgin Orbit’s employees, equal to about 675 positions. This will also cost the company money as the severance payments are estimated to total $8.8 million.

The development, laid out in a securities filing dated March 30, isn’t a major surprise as Virgin Orbit has been seeking funding for some time. The challenging search led to the company furloughing all of its staff earlier this month while it looked for a cash injection, although in recent weeks some of those furloughed employees had reportedly returned to work.

Virgin Orbit had been developing a system that delivers small satellites to low-Earth orbit for businesses and governments and hoped to position itself as a rival to the likes of SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

But instead of launching the satellites on rockets launched from the ground, Virgin Orbit used a modified Boeing 747 aircraft that fitted the rocket and its payload beneath a wing before launching it from an altitude of around 35,000 feet.

This gave Virgin Orbit the advantage of being able to launch missions from any location in the world with little more than a suitable runway, with launches also possible in the kind of poor weather conditions that might delay a ground-based mission.

Virgin Orbit completed four successful missions since the first one in January 2021, but suffered a setback in January this year when a launch effort in the U.K. ended in failure with the loss of nine satellites belonging to a number of commercial customers.

In what was reportedly an emotional address, Hart told staff on Thursday: “This company, this team, all of you, mean a hell of a lot to me. And I have not, and will not, stop supporting you, whether you’re here on the journey or if you’re elsewhere.”

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