Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company founded by English billionaire Richard Branson, is perhaps best known for its focus on space tourism. Virgin has long promised that, for a hefty fee, it will eventually carry human passengers for a brief ride to space.
However, Virgin’s human spaceflight efforts have suffered several delays and problems, not the least of which was the 2014 loss of a SpaceShipTwo spaceplane in an incident that cost the life of a test pilot. Seeking a new revenue stream in the meantime, Virgin Galactic has shifted its focus to launching small satellites, a growing sector of the commercial spaceflight business thanks to new technological innovations.
At first, Virgin’s plan was to launch those smalls satellites from midair via a rocket attached to its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which is also used to carry SpaceShipTwo to altitude. This week, however, the company announced a new strategy: It will instead launch those satellite-carrying rockets from a Boeing 747-400 that once flew for Branson-founded airline Virgin Atlantic.
In a statement, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said the move to the 747 would keep costs down for the company’s satellite launch customers.
“Air launch enables us to provide rapid, responsive service to our satellite customers on a schedule set by their business and operational needs, rather than the constraints of national launch ranges,” said Whitesides. “Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices.”
The idea to launch rocket-carrying satellites from an aircraft isn’t a new one: Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense’s research wing announced it will test such launches via an F-15 fighter jet. It’s also reminiscent of NASA’s late-1970s use of a specially equipped 747 to test the first Space Shuttle.