Billionaire Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company, Virgin Orbit, sold nearly $36 million in assets to a trio of space companies at auction Tuesday, including its massive manufacturing facility in Douglas Park, which will be taken over by nearby Rocket Lab.
With the company being stripped and sold for parts, a spokesperson for Virgin Orbit told the Business Journal that more layoffs are expected at the end of the week as well.
Since Virgin Orbit announced it would lay off 85% of its nearly 800 workers at the end of March, the company had been operating with between 75 and 100 employees, according to the spokesperson. The number of employees is expected to drop to around 20 by the end of the week, they added.
The remaining employees will likely be laid off sometime in June, once the liquidation of company assets is finalized.
“Throughout its history, Virgin Orbit has been at the forefront of innovation and has made substantial contributions to the field of commercial rocket launch with its LauncherOne air launch platform,” the firm said in a statement Tuesday. “The company’s cutting-edge technology, unmatched expertise, and commitment to excellence have propelled it to the vanguard of an emerging commercial launch industry.
Rocket Lab bid just over $16.1 million for its neighbor’s 140,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and headquarters on Conant Street—one of the first industrial buildings erected during the area’s renaissance. In addition to taking over the lease of the space, the bid also includes machinery and equipment, including 3D printers and tank winding machines, the spokesperson said.
Virgin Orbit planned to manufacture 24 rockets per year at the facility, and Rocket Lab said in a Tuesday statement that the new assets will advance the production of its larger launch vehicle, Neutron.
“With Neutron’s design and development well-advanced, this transaction represents a capital expenditure savings opportunity to augment our production capability to bring Neutron to the launch pad quickly to serve our customers and their future success,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said. “Securing the lease to the Conant Facility adds to our existing presence in Long Beach and provides co-located engineering, manufacturing, and test capabilities for our Neutron team.”
“With this announcement, Rocket Lab is tripling the size of their presence in Long Beach,” Mayor Rex Richardson said in a statement. “Long Beach is proud to be a leader in the aerospace industry and a partner of RocketLab.”
Seattle-based Stratolaunch bid $17 million for Virgin’s modified Boeing 747 aircraft—Cosmic Girl—and related assets.
“Stratolaunch continually evaluates ways to increase our capacity to meet the imperative for testing hypersonic technologies via leap-ahead flight demonstrations,” Stratolaunch said in an emailed statement to the Business Journal. “We will share more news about the sale as it becomes available.”
Launcher, a subsidiary of Vast Space, which is the newest entrant to Long Beach’s aerospace sector, bid $2.7 million for Virgin Orbit’s Mojave facility lease, machinery and equipment, and inventory, the filing shows. A Vast spokesperson declined to comment, “as no deals have officially closed.”
The lease for Virgin Orbit’s second building, a 43,000-square-foot space just two blocks north (across the street from Rocket Lab’s headquarters), has not been purchased. INLIPER Acquisition and Liquidity Services Operations, however, submitted a winning $650,000 bid for the contents of the building such as office furniture, electronics and the like, according to the Virgin Orbit spokesperson.
The transactions are subject to court approval and a hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, with the sales expected to close shortly thereafter, the company said Tuesday.
While the sales are substantial, Virgin has not been able to unload its rocket inventory, which includes one LauncherOne vehicle that is 95% complete and about six others at various stages of production, the spokesperson said. It also remains to be seen what will be done with the company’s intellectual property—the concept and design of its innovative launch system.
Despite filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April, as recently as May 8, the company was moving forward with plans for a contracted launch later this year—which accounts for the nearly complete rocket in its inventory. With the company now being sold off for parts, the spokesperson noted that no future launches will take place.
Companies and organizations with contracts for launches are usually paid in segments, with final payment not due until the launch occurs. Those with outstanding contracts, will be reimbursed as creditors through Virgin’s bankruptcy proceedings, the employee said.
Virgin Galactic came to Douglas Park in 2015, marking the beginning of Long Beach’s space boom. The facility was transitioned into the headquarters for Virgin Orbit in 2017, while Virgin Galactic operations continued elsewhere.
Since Virgin’s move into the city, Long Beach’s space sector has exploded, and it now includes Rocket Lab, SpinLaunch, Relativity Space and Vast Space.
“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered,” the company’s statement reads. “Its groundbreaking technologies, relentless pursuit of excellence, and unwavering commitment to advancing the frontiers of air launch have left an indelible mark on the industry.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information from Vast Space, Rocket Lab and Mayor Rex Richardson.