No suborbital flights will depart from Puglia. No satellites, no space tourists. Not with Virgin at least. The company founded by Richard Branson on May 24 went bankrupt. A crash that also involves Italy and touches Sitael, chosen in 2018 by Virgin to develop technologies for space flights and create the first Italian spaceport. In Grottaglie. A hundred kilometers south of Bari. “With Virgin we had a satellite launch scheduled for the end of this year. We also paid an $800,000 down payment, before three installments. Obviously their failure is a problem for us”, Chiara Pertosa, CEO of Sitael, tells Italian Tech.
The agreement signed in Mola di Bari. Benson and the exultation of the raised fist
The agreement between Virgin and Sitael was signed on July 6, 2018. In Mola di Bari, where the company is based, Branson shows up in person. In shirtsleeves, in the presence of the top management of the company, the president of the Puglia Region, Michele Emiliano, and the then minister for the South, Barbara Lezzi, Giuseppe Conte's first government. The symbolic photo of that day in Mola portrays the histrionic Branson raising a fist in exultation after signing the agreement. A quiver in the general composure.
According to the plans, Grottaglie airport, in the province of Taranto, should have become the launch pad for secondary, commercial and tourist flights. Grottaglie respected the parameters foreseen for this type of launch: space, proximity to the sea. And the idea of making it a port space has not been set aside by the Region. But without Virgin a fundamental element is missing: the pitcher. A company that establishes the basis for its launches there.
In January Virgin fails a launch. Things go downhill
“When we signed the partnership, the project was to fly Virgin Orbit from there. Their aircraft had to carry a spacecraft underneath which contained small satellites. Our. The spacecraft should have detached and gone into orbit,” recalls Pertosa. “The project stalled shortly thereafter. They began to accumulate development delays. Then everything came to a head after what happened at the beginning of the year in Cornwall”, when Virgin Orbit's LaucherOne rocket suffered an anomaly, not reaching orbit and losing the 9 satellites it had on board. Sitael's satellite (a project that the Apulian company had done for the European Space Agency) now doesn't risk ending up the same way. But the problem now is finding another launcher now. Someone who can launch satellites designed to be hosted in Virgin rockets.
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“We are in trouble. It won't be easy,” admits Pertosa. “They wanted to get into the commercial launch business. And with advantageous prices. But it takes important technical skills. And at the moment only Elon Musk's SpaceX has managed to do it ”, adds the manager. Branson in Puglia had recently relaunched its plan for suborbital flights after a long hiatus, following an accident in 2014 in the California desert where a spacecraft exploded during a test, killing one of the two pilots. In 2018 it signed a series of partnerships. And the partners then today are all creditors. The 1000 employees have lost their jobs.
The crash of Virgin Orbit which in 2021 was worth 3.5 billion
Sitael is an Italian excellence in the aerospace sector. It is part of Angel Investment, founded and led by Vito Pertosa. The group has over 2,000 employees. 1,400 engineers and a network of contacts and partnerships with the best Italian polytechnics.
The agreement with Virgin (both with Orbit and with Virgin Galactic) should have accelerated its growth process in the sector, which in Puglia sees one of the best research and development centers in Italy. “No more followed after the 2018 deal. No other contacts, nor projects. We have known for some time that things were not going well ”, concludes Pertosa.
Virgin Orbit, which is based in the US, California, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 24. He has auctioned off his assets and raised $36 million so far. A figure that represents just 1% of the value that the company had reached in 2021 on Wall Street. It was valued at $3.5 billion.