Virgin, Surrey, and Astrium

There was some coverage earlier this week of reports that Virgin Galactic and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) were teaming up to develop a small satellite launcher using a new rocket launched from WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft being developed to launch SpaceShipTwo. Virgin has been interested in some time in developing a small satellite launcher using elements of the same system developed for SS2/WK2, calling the concept “LauncherOne”, as Flight International reported a couple months ago. Working with SSTL, arguably the world’s leading smallsat developer, makes sense, since launch costs and availability have been key obstacles to wider acceptance of smallsats.

There is an interesting angle to this that has, by and large, not been picked up. Last year SSTL was acquired by EADS Astrium, one of Europe’s largest aerospace companies; the deal closed just last month. Among Astrium’s many other projects is a suborbital spaceplane of its own that would compete directly with Virgin Galactic. Is SSTL’s cooperation with Virgin a sign that Astrium indeed allows SSTL to continue to operate as an independent company “with its individual brand and unique approach to space”, as the January press release about the deal’s closing stated? Or is it a sign that Astrium’s spaceplane project, which has not shown much overt progress since its unveiling in June 2007, is on hold or in greater jeopardy?

2 comments to Virgin, Surrey, and Astrium

  • Hi Jeff,

    I think space jet, the holding name EADS gives its single-stage-to-suborbit spaceplane, is a total PR stunt and I don’t think it will go anywhere.

    One EADS PR official told me last year that he warned his management that it would be seen as a PR stunt – he claimed it is a genuine effort but it was unveiled at the same time as EADS Space rebranded itself as Astrium

    But Astrium’s space jet team has not been involved in any of the EU or ESA space tourism related projects and they gave themselves a ludicrous development price tag of €1 billion and said they would raise the money privately. Well that won’t happen in this financial climate.

    Astrium also said that it would in time rename space jet but nothing has been done so far and they have not approached a potential user, as Astrium would not operate the spaceline service itself

    I got to speak to space jet’s programme manager at Christoph Chavagnac at the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety annual conference held in Rome last year ( and he declined an interview and said they would not talk about space jet until it was rolled out!

    Interestingly at the IAASS event the organisation’s president space safety expert Tommaso Sgobba offered IAASS’ services for free to the space jet team for an independent safety evaluation and Chavagnac looked embarressed when he declined that offer.

    I think Rocketplane has a better chance of making it happen then Astrium.


  • EADS/Astrium pulled the plug from the spaceplane project. Its gone…

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