The Los Angeles-based startup, which hopes to blast satellites into orbit via a rocket that launches from the beneath the wing of a 747 airliner, said in a series of tweets that as infection rates “skyrocket” in the area, Virgin Orbit’s contact tracing has put so many employees into “precautionary quarantines” that the company does not have enough staff to support an upcoming test flight of its LauncherOne rocket.
Virgin Orbit, like other space technology companies in the United States, is permitted to continue operations throughout the pandemic because the government deemed the space sector part of the country’s “critical infrastructure” in March. As one industry group argued, the sector’s commercial activity is also intertwined with crucial US national security projects and NASA programs.
Virgin Orbit spun off from Virgin Galactic, which is focused on sending tourists on suborbital flights that reach about 50 miles high, in 2017.
Virgin Orbit then said it was aiming to conduct a second test launch before the end of the year, and a Federal Aviation Administration-certified launch was scheduled for this weekend.
But the company said after finishing a contact tracing effort last Friday, it decided to halt a final fueling test of its rocket midway through that operation so managers could make a “clear-sighted assessment before moving forward.”
“Given the timelines associated with accurate Covid-19 testing results, this will impact our launch schedule,” according to a tweet posted to Virgin Orbit’s account. “We are assessing that impact now. We will be ready to fly soon, but the health of our team and their families remains at the forefront of our decisions.”