Rocket Lab will use the former headquarters of Virgin Orbit for producing Rutherford and Archimedes engines. Credit: Rocket Lab/Austin Adams
By Jeff Foust,
Published by SpaceNews, 5 October 2023
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Rocket Lab has opened a new engine development center in a building that, six months earlier, was the headquarters of a competing launch company, Virgin Orbit.
Rocket Lab held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 4 for its Engine Development Center here. The 13,400-square-meter facility will be used for production of both the Rutherford engines used on its Electron rocket and larger Archimedes engines it is developing for the Neutron rocket.
The facility had previously been the headquarters for Virgin Orbit, where that company built its LauncherOne rockets. Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April and Rocket Lab acquired the lease on the building, along with the machinery and equipment inside, for $16.1 million in a bankruptcy auction in May.
Rocket Lab previously estimated the value of the facility and its contents at about $100 million. However, Adam Spice, Rocket Lab’s chief financial officer, said in an interview that the biggest impact of the purchase is “de-risking” the schedule for scaling up engine production.
“Things that we were thinking we could probably get done in 12 to 18 months, well, it’s done. So really it was more of a timeline and uncertainty shrinker, if you will,” he said. “Getting stuff for 16 cents on the dollar didn’t hurt as well.”
Before the bankruptcy sale, Rocket Lab has planned to produce engines in its existing headquarters just a few blocks away. “We could have done that, but that wouldn’t have allowed for the expansion of our space systems business,” he said, which produces satellites. “It’s freed up a tremendous amount of ability to scale up our space systems business. It’s probably a bigger enabler for space systems than it is for the rocket part of our business.”
The proximity of the new engine facility to Rocket Lab’s existing headquarters is another benefit, he added. “We really lucked out.”
Rocket Lab began moving into the building days after the bankruptcy sale closed. Employees started setting up equipment for engine production while organizing the items left behind by Virgin Orbit. Company employees said on a tour that they are still cataloging the inventory of items in the building, which ranged from advanced industrial equipment to large stockpiles of furniture and office equipment.
Spice said the company is already producing parts for the Archimedes engine, and over the previous weekend started moving the production line for the Rutherford engine into the new building. Full-scale engine production will ramp up over the next few months.
The new Rocket Lab facility also benefits the city of Long Beach, which has made a concerted effort in recent years to attract space companies to the city, including Rocket Lab as well as Relativity Space, SpinLaunch and Vast, under an initiative called “Space Beach”. Virgin Orbit had been the first, setting up that facility when it was still a division of Virgin Galactic.
“We were bummed about that,” Rex Richardson, mayor of Long Beach, said of Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy at the dedication ceremony. “That was our first Space Beach company.”
He thanked Rocket Lab for taking over the facility and working with the city on job fairs for former Virgin Orbit employees. “What that means is that this burgeoning space cluster we have in Long Beach is resilient,” he said.
Rocket Lab, meanwhile, is continuing to investigate the Sept. 19 Electron launch failure. Spice said the investigation is still in its “early days” and didn’t offer a specific timetable for completing it or returning Electron to flight.
“Nothing right now would indicate anything different” for a return to flight compared to the two previous Electron launch failures in July 2020 and May 2021, he said. Those two previous failures both involved the upper stage, which also appeared to be the case with the latest failure, and the company resumed Electron launches within a few months.
“We’re confident we’ll get back relatively soon,” he said.
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