Virgin Orbit’s lasting legacy
Outer space to cyberspace
Following a failed launch in the UK, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit recently announced it is ceasing operations, at least for the time being, due to a cash crunch.
Up until the shuttering of this particular Virgin Group asset, Guam had figured prominently in the company’s future plans to launch small, “low earth orbit” satellites into shallow outer space, using Andersen Air Force Base for phase one of an established two-part launch system. In fact, this is exactly what Virgin had already been doing successfully in California.
Destination Guam was chosen for its low-latitude location, ideal weather, broad reach, and military-grade infrastructure. But this was hardly the first time a private company – much less an army, a transient community, or an entire nation – had recognized our island for its natural and strategic advantages.
Aside from its protective highlands, abundant rainfall, plentiful Northern Lens Aquifer, rich biodiversity, and deep-water seaport at Apra Harbor, Guam’s modern infrastructure includes sophisticated telecommunications systems that incorporate undersea fiber optic cable and retransmission centers, cellular phone towers, Wi-Fi Internet, and secure military information transmission.
Truly, our island’s status as a communications hub extends back in time through a rich legacy of telephony, telegraphy, ship-sent royal letters, and transoceanic trade encompassing four millennia. Transpacific communication has always been a natural fit.
And in our modern era, Virgin Orbit’s launch technology aimed to help close a digital communications redundancy loop by erecting an arc of LEO sats to beef up transmission and help extend communications access into the remote reaches of the Pacific. Virgin Orbit’s VOX Space subsidiary had even penned a Commercial Space Operations Support Agreement Annex with Andersen’s 36th Wing Command shortly after the outset of the Covid pandemic.
Whether or not Orbit ever continues its mission under new ownership following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is perhaps less important than the precedence it has set for affordable launching services that disrupted the small satellite market with bleeding-edge technology. The company’s unique innovation saw its Launcher One space rockets hit ignition from under the left wing of a converted 747 from high altitude in successful flights from the Mojave Desert.
And Guam was poised to be an integral part of high-tech payload liftoff from far further into the Pacific and much closer to the communist Peoples Republic of China that has never been a greater threat to the peace, security, and prosperity of our region and the free world.
Virgin Orbit’s qualified success as an innovator changes the concept of what’s possible for our galaxy of space travel and communications technology from right here in the Western Pacific. And this realization occurs at a time when Guam has never been more critical to the national security and free trade profiles of the United States and its East Asian allies.
Incidentally, Virgin Orbit was a spinoff from Virgin Galactic, the Virgin Group’s space tourism venture, which remains operational. But it can hardly be said that either operates in an anti-competitive vacuum. Both of Branson’s space-oriented Virgin enterprises have faced deep-pocket rivalry from the likes of Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX galactic exploration company and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space tourism venture.
In fact, SpaceX has been instrumental in the defense of Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion by providing the war-torn country with satellite communications support. And, despite early technical setbacks, Blue Origin has already established itself as a frontrunner in lower outer space tourism in which paying customers can experience weightlessness and look down at planet Earth from 62 miles up.
In a post-pandemic world where the government of Guam and the Guam Visitors Bureau find ourselves exploring new and improved ways of adding worth and substance to the global value chain, it’s encouraging to know that even an island with limited human and natural resources has viable options to consider as we restructure our economy around new post-COVID realities in which premiums on travel security and national security are the new normal.
Meanwhile, the semiconductor, microprocessor, and communications technology supporting the outer space industry is likewise fueling the world’s white-hot cyberspace enterprises. Not only is cyberspace critical to international cybersecurity, but it will also one day see Guam’s visitor industry launched into the metaverse as a digital destination designed to excite the senses and fuel our source markets’ growing fascination with CHamoru culture and “all things Guam” between in-person visits.
With the help of its allies and friendly corporations, Ukraine has taught the world that the deft use of technology can literally save a culture from disintegrating, help stop a nation from collapsing, and prevent the deletion of data and the rewriting of history. It has literally used outer space and cyberspace to defend its borders, stand up to aggression, save lives, and protect its records with the use of satellites and cloud-based storage.
With burning hope, proper planning, and decisive leadership, Guam has an unprecedented opportunity to cooperate with our benefactors and beneficiaries alike to use similar technology as a deterrent to aggression and an accelerant to better times ahead.
Jeffrey Tomas Marchesseault’s adventures in communications, sales, marketing, and team leadership span news and entertainment, politics, real estate brokerage, property management, economic development, and tourism. He now works as a full-time publicist for Guam Visitors Bureau. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.