Saturday, March 4, 2017

Virgin Orbit seen as boost for Long Beach after aircraft plants close



Long Beach may still be a place where flying machines and other high-tech products are built, even if factories where thousands of workers assemble big jets are a relic of the past.

That’s the prospect after Thursday’s announcement that a new company called Virgin Orbit would be formed to build rockets that officials hope will transform space launches into a relatively inexpensive venture.

The company, however, is new in name only. The team, part of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, had already been active in Long Beach for about two years.

Virgin Group now has three companies focused on different aspects of private spaceflight, an industry where high-profile billionaires such as Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are furthering the cause of space travel as being something private enterprises, not just superpower governments, can do.

Long Beach had been home to assembly plants for such aircraft as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III military transport jet and the Boeing 717 and Douglas DC-8 passenger jets. Earlier, Douglas Co. workers built B-17 bombers and the DC-3 passenger aircraft in Long Beach.

Boeing’s C-17 plant closed in late 2015 after the assembly of its 279th and final Globemaster III. Months prior to the plant’s closure, a Wall Street Journal headline declared to the nation that Boeing’s phase out of C-17 production signified the “end of Southern California’s jet age.”

Reacting to Virgin Orbit’s announcement last week, Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Randy Gordon said the company’s doing business in Long Beach helps to fulfill former Mayor Beverly O’Neill’s dream of the city becoming a place for trade, tourism and technology.

“It will certainly bring new technology and prestigious names to Long Beach,” Gordon said.

Gordon pointed to document imagery company Laserfiche and Epson America as previous examples of tech companies settling in Long Beach.

Virgin Orbit’s headquarters is in Douglas Park, the northeast Long Beach cluster of new industrial and commercial developments on former Boeing Co. property.

Mercedes-Benz USA opened its West Coast headquarters there in late 2015. And Shimadzu Precision Instruments moved its U.S. headquarters and assembly plant from Torrance to Douglas Park in the same year. Shimadzu Precision Instruments produces aircraft equipment and is the subsidiary of a Japanese firm.

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re doing this in Long Beach, on top of an area that used to produce commercial aircraft,” Galactic Ventures Chief Executive George T. Whitesides said.

California Employment Development Department data show Los Angeles County manufacturers employed an estimated 116,000 people in aerospace parts and product manufacturing in December 1991, the final month of the Soviet Union’s existence.

As of this past January, aerospace employment in the county was nowhere near the levels of the Cold War. Some 36,200 people working in Los Angeles County had jobs in the field.

Nonetheless, Virgin Orbit vice president of special projects Will Pomerantz said the local availability of talent with aerospace expertise motivated company leaders to set up shop in Long Beach.

At present, Virgin Orbit has about 250 people, mostly engineers and technicians, working in Long Beach.

Virgin Orbit announced its existence two years and one day after Virgin Galactic moved into a 180,000-square-foot assembly plant in eastern Long Beach. Almost all of the new company’s floor space is devoted to giving engineers and technicians a place to design, manufacture and assemble a new rocket that Virgin Orbit executives say has the potential to deliver a small payload into space at a relatively low price.

“We’re not trying to fly the biggest rockets,” Pomerantz said while providing a tour of Virgin Orbit’s facility. “We’re trying to fly the most rockets, or the most affordable rockets.”

Virgin Orbit’s rocket, LauncherOne, is designed to attach below the wing of a specially modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet named Cosmic Girl and to be fired like a missile into outer space while the jet is in midair at an altitude of roughly 35,000 feet.

The rocket itself measures to nearly 70 feet long and can weigh some 55,000 pounds when carrying fuel and its satellite payload. Virgin Orbit’s rocket designs for LauncherOne call for two-stage rockets to be assembled from carbon composite materials. Each stage has a single engine, and Pomerantz said the launchers need to be built to withstand the stresses occurring at velocities as fast as 25 times the speed of sound.

LauncherOne’s first launch into outer space may take place by year’s end, Pomerantz said. If all goes according to plan, Virgin Orbit would eventually become capable of producing 24 launch vehicles annually. The cost for a customer who wants to hire Virgin Orbit to send a small satellite into space may be about $10 million to $12 million.

That’s why Pomerantz said Virgin Orbit engineers are employing proven technologies like RP-1 fuel — “it’s got a fancy name, but it’s kerosene and oxygen” — and cutting edge equipment such as a DMG Mori Lasertec 4300 3D, a machine that Pomerantz said can print 3-D rocket components that are themselves composed of various types of metal.

“We are not counting on this for our first flight,” he said. “This is a science project.”

Among Southern California’s spaceflight companies, there’s a lot of difference between what SpaceX and Virgin Orbit are seeking to do. Space X flies larger rockets than what Virgin Galactic aims to do with LauncherOne and has already delivered supplies to the International Space Station and made significant advances toward the development of reusable heavy rocket stages.

Space X advertises a $62 million price for a customer who wants to hire a Falcon 9 to send a payload all the way into geosynchronous transfer orbit, a path through space from where it’s possible for a satellite to enter a high-earth geosynchronous orbit.

A geosynchronous orbit, according to NASA, is roughly 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface and sufficiently far enough into outer space that a communications or weather satellite can stick to a single line of longitude. In other words, the satellite’s orbit is in sync with the Earth’s rotation.

Space X’s Falcon 9 has nine first-stage engines and a single-second stage engine in order to carry 18,300 pounds of payload into geosynchronous transfer orbit

Virgin Orbit’s Launcher- One, by way of contrast, is designed to send a payload on the order of 1,100 pounds (and, per Pomerantz, about the size of a dishwasher or washing machine) about 124 miles above the planet’s surface, into low-Earth orbit.

Satellites in low-Earth orbit are moving relative to the Earth, but can still be employed to capture images of what’s occurring on the planet’s surface, Dan Hart, the newly named company’s president, said.

A large of number of satellites gathering scientific and weather data, such as the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, are in low-Earth orbit, according to NASA.

Virgin Orbit is privately held, Pomerantz said. Virgin Group and Aabar Investments, of the United Arab Emirates, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the company’s development.

Private spaceflight companies such as Virgin Orbit and SpaceX are in a situation that’s analogous to aviation pioneers doing business in the first years of powered flight, said Forouzan Golshani, dean of the College of Engineering at Cal State Long Beach.

“What these companies are doing is very important,” he said. “These are the brave leaders of industry that will pave the way for spaceflight being like flying from L.A. to New York,” he said.

Cal State Long Beach has already established a relationship with Virgin Orbit.

At least 25 graduates of the Long Beach campus work for Virgin, according to information provided by the campus. Three students interned with Virgin in summer 2016.

Propulsion development engineer Nicole Lewis is among the young engineers working for Virgin Orbit. Lewis, a self-described “space nerd,” said she obtained her employment after earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, where she studied mechanical engineering.

She said she interned with United Launch Alliance, Boeing and Virgin before being hired in August 2015. A major aspect of her job working on the LauncherOne is helping engineers working in the propulsion, launch operations and structure groups solve design problems that require people with different areas of expertise to work together.

The job involves a lot of pressure, but not in a way that gets people down, she said.

“Yes, but in a way that people are able to respond to it and do a lot of good work,” Lewis said.

Source:  http://www.presstelegram.com

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