Virgin Orbit and the CAA: A Cry for Harry Tuttle?

Well… while I was writing the “End of the Beginning of the End,” I didn’t notice that Rocket Lab also announced it was standing up a national security-focused business arm last week. The subsidiary, Rocket Lab National Security, will attempt to lure the types of customers we would expect it to angle for: defense and intelligence. Confusing things is Rocket Lab’s announcement of its Responsive Space Program earlier in 2022, which also caters to those customers. So it may be that the company tucks its RS Program into its national security subsidiary. But, of course, that only sounds sensible…

Rocket Lab is yet another of the new launch companies making explicit what most Americans know: the U.S. military pays very, very well for these services—sometimes paying more than makes sense. Sadly, what makes sense is Rocket Lab’s attempt to address military needs. It’s commendable that these companies recognize their products and services can help the U.S. military and are making things simpler for the military to work with them. But I hope they will continue catering to commercial needs for a long while. There’s no indication they won’t, but pursuing government money sometimes changes a company’s focus.

“Have You Got a 27B Stroke 6?”

For those familiar with the concept of launching rockets from airplanes, it might be surprising to find out that they can’t be launched anywhere on the planet, especially if there’s a healthy (or perhaps, unhealthy) dose of regulation and process involved. Unfortunately, this is the reality Virgin Orbit has stated it’s facing as one of the reasons it won’t be taking off from British soil and launching its rocket on schedule. SpaceNews quoted the company’s CEO as he highlighted the reasons for the delay:

“With licenses still outstanding for the launch itself and for the satellites within the payload, additional technical work needed to establish system health and readiness, and a very limited available launch window of only two days,” he said, “we have determined that it is prudent to retarget launch for the coming weeks to allow ourselves and our stakeholders time to pave the way for full mission success.”

The UK organization responsible for granting those outstanding licenses, the Civil Aviation Authority, disputed Hart’s statement, focusing for some reason on a perceived link between the technical work and CAA’s licensing process. From Advanced Television’s coverage of the bureaucratic brouhaha:

“The CAA’s Tim Johnson (Director/Space Regulation) added: “Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity. Spaceport Cornwall’s licence already permits Virgin Orbit to undertake its testing programme prior to launch. Our dedicated team has been working closely with all partners to assess applications and issue the remaining licences within the timelines we set at the outset.”

The CAA doth protest too much, methinks.

Hart is unlikely to have publicly said anything untrue, but it’s not unprecedented for someone in his position to embellish the facts. However, the CAA doesn’t explicitly say it has or has not issued licenses for “the launch itself.” Instead, it merely mentions that Spaceport Cornwall has its spaceport license. There are also the “remaining licences” the CAA noted at the end, which haven’t been issued according to its timeline. Those are likely the licenses Virgin Orbit is waiting for. Whatever the CAA’s timeline is, however, it’s unlikely to move quickly, and its response to Virgin Orbit is a huffy way of saying, “mind your own business.”

“Where would we be if we didn’t follow the correct procedures?”

Wherever the problem exists (I suspect communications and process–this should never have come out in the open), it highlights a non-technical challenge of using an air-launched rocket platform for global commercial launch services: parochial laws and bureaucracy. It exposes a truth hidden beneath the hype as some space launch entrepreneurs tap their tiny fists against their frail chests. That hype for air-launched and mobile systems: we can launch from anywhere, oorah (they squeak)! The problem for them occurs when their hype strains against the very real and age-old boat anchor that is the inevitable leukemia of government in any form: bureaucracy. And bureaucracy doesn’t care about business models, an entrepreneur’s promises, revolutionary space technology, or the advancement of civilization. 

In Virgin Orbit’s case, the company can technically launch a rocket from its 747 anywhere above the Earth, so long as a compatible runway is nearby. But then it has to deal with the governments of nations in which those runways exist. 

Every. Single. One. Of. Them. 

That’s on top of getting the Federal Aviation Administration’s say-so (which U.S.-based companies must). While the CAA naturally is defensive and stuck in its process, at least there are language and cultural similarities (as well as direct corporate links) between Virgin Orbit and the UK. The CAA, Cornwall, and Virgin Orbit will eventually figure this out. But imagine the ensuing hilarity when Virgin Orbit attempts to launch from Singapore or Texas. 

The challenge is not just a launch service company problem, even though it impacts their businesses. They do not even cause it. Instead, it results from the flexible capability such mobile systems bring to customers. Airlines and freight companies–any company that requires ports in nations worldwide–have to deal with various national and regional bureaucracies daily. Mobile launch services are another (tiny) business facing the bureaucratic grinder.  Simplifying the national bureaucratic hoops these companies must jump through depends on how serious a nation’s “spaceport” is in attracting media attention and a space launch service’s business. 

However, bureaucracies aren’t overly fond of adjusting their processes to cater to new situations. When they do, they vigorously attempt to adjust reality to fit their existing processes (see: FAA)–and usually succeed (in their view). Because laws coerce “customers” to comply with a bureaucracy’s processes, there’s no incentive (other than mercy or compassion) to make things easier, faster, convenient, etc. That overall dysfunction is what Virgin Orbit currently faces with the UK and its CAA. It’s probably what Virgin Orbit will face as a “pathfinder” business, attempting to land contracts in other nations. 

“Bloody typical, they’ve gone back to metric without telling us.”

Another possible challenge will be how those nations view Virgin Orbit’s service. The UK and its media are willing to spin Virgin Orbit’s pending launch from Cornwall as evidence of that nation’s competitiveness in the global space industry. While that self-delusion helps Virgin Orbit nudge open the UK market, what about those nations with burgeoning smallsat launch companies? Germany, France, and India are among those nations, and they will do everything in their power, including using their bureaucracies as firewalls full of inconveniences, to protect those companies.

However, those efforts to protect a small launch service sector risk another market segment–the spacecraft manufacturers and operators looking for smallsat launch services. The result of implementing such protectionism will be a continuation of what those customers do today: launch service shopping in other nations. SpaceX’s rideshare missions demonstrate that tendency as spacecraft operators from many nations willingly use that company’s service. Others will surely approach Virgin Orbit to launch their satellites from U.S. soil.

It might make sense if the nations hosting (or wanting to host) spaceports came together to create reciprocal regulations that benefit these mobile launch services. They already do so for airlines and shipping. However, unlike those markets, operational mobile launch services comprise a tiny space segment–one company, really–which might be too small to justify any international efforts to make things simpler for companies like Virgin Orbit and spaceports such as Cornwall. Moreover, suppose Virgin Orbit remains the only company in the world offering a mobile launch service. In that case, the company may have to deal with other nations’ bureaucracies much more intimately than any sane company may wish to encounter.    

The situation facing Virgin Orbit is a result of its success and the desire of spaceports in other nations to host the company’s launches. It’s a character and value test for the company, as it must decide whether it will continue its pathfinding business growth to other nations. Will it be worth it for Virgin Orbit to offer those services in other nations (especially for something as relatively inexpensive as a smallsat launch)? The back and forth between Virgin Orbit and the CAA will eventually settle down and possibly become less attractive as UK-based launches become common. Virgin Orbit and Cornwall will eventually understand what the CAA requires for launch licenses and the realistic schedule applicable to that process. 

Until the CAA changes its requirements.

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