Outside of government, space has traditionally been the domain of big, well-established entities. VOX Space is looking to change that. A wholly owned subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, the company offers a fresh take on satellite launch in support of the defense and intelligence communities.
Jeff Trauberman, vice president of government affairs, said now is an ideal time for a startup to break into the space game.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen billions of dollars in new investments made in some very novel products and services,” he said. VOX Space is working to capitalize on that momentum.
Its main offering is a novel and flexible satellite delivery system developed with private funds, which Trauberman said is a perfect fit for a number of top national priorities. Rather than depend on complex and costly ground launches, the company straps a 70-foot rocket under the wing of a 747 aircraft. That rocket in turn hoists satellites into orbit.
Highly flexible and mobile, the system can serve a wide range of potential customers, said Trauberman, who chairs WashingtonExec’s Space Council. The challenge is to win support for an idea still relatively new.
“We think there’s a clear role for this, but when you’re bringing something really new and revolutionary to the market, there’s occasionally some lag time,” he said. “People may not be prepared for it.”
How best to overcome that initial unfamiliarity? In the space sector, nothing succeeds like success.
“You need to prove that you can do it,” Trauberman said. “In our case, we’ve launched twice this year, once for NASA and once for the Department of Defense, and both missions were very successful. We are in that relatively small club of people who have actually demonstrated these capabilities.”
As he surveys the landscape of potential end users, Trauberman said his company’s offering may be especially attractive to the U.S. national security community. The ability to launch anytime from an aircraft, anywhere, on very short notice and with minimal or no warning has a lot of advantages for space reconstitution, space augmentation and space resilience.
With space now a contested domain, “responsive launch” and “responsive space” — not dependent on traditional fixed launch sites — present many advantages in addressing threats from peer adversaries. The capability to deploy space systems from any 747-compatible airfield also complicates a potential adversary’s calculus involving U.S. and allied operations.
The mobile launch system is also attractive to nations with a strong interest in space, but may lack the means to get there.
“There are a lot of countries that have indigenous space programs, but not a lot of countries actually have their own launch infrastructure and facilities,” Trauberman said.
“We can offer them a mobile space program: They can launch a satellite from their sovereign territory and then go onto the next mission,” he added. “We’re actually going to be doing a launch out of the United Kingdom next year. That’s a very advanced country in terms of its space capabilities, they have built satellites, but they do not have an indigenous launch program. So this is a perfect collaboration.”
The success of VOX Space has implications for the wider GovCon community, where there is strong interest in supporting the government’s need for satellite-based intelligence.
“These smaller satellites can offer amazing capabilities,” he said. “For DOD, there are imaging satellites, communications satellites, domain awareness satellites and many other useful space missions. As a result, there are a lot of companies moving into small-satellite technology. It has created a lot more opportunities to work with government in the space business.”
A flexible, reliable launch could help to drive that sector further still — a potential win for any GovCon looking to support government’s space aspirations.
Of course, strong interest in the space sector also puts a premium on talent. To that end, Trauberman said, VOX Space is working hard to position itself as an employer of choice.
“There is a lot of competition for talent because of the expansion in the space business,” he said. “We compete by making this a great place to work, and especially by empowering our people. The best way to motivate people is by letting them do their jobs without a lot of layers of oversight and micro-management. We have a wonderful team at VOX Space and Virgin Orbit, with a mix of folks that understand the industry and raw talent helping to drive us into this new era.”
Empowered workers are key to success in a business where every launch is a can’t-fail proposition.
“In this business, you’re only as good as your last launch success, and that’s always a fairly risky operation,” Trauberman said. “It’s a business that requires real attention to detail every step of the way, and we set the highest standards of performance. We also recognize that every job is essential, no matter how big or how small. We stress to the employees that every single person has a critical part to play.”
Trauberman, himself, joined the company three years ago, bringing with him a longtime interest in space exploration.
“I worked for the balance of my career with Boeing, which was a terrific experience — working on space, intelligence, missile defense, cybersecurity, all sorts of programs that are related to the work I do now,” he said. “Like many people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, I also was really captivated by the space program — the excitement, the sense of exploration and accomplishment.”
That sense of limitless possibility has never abated.
“We’ve gone to the moon, but there’s so much more to explore and to do, so many benefits that can be brought to humankind by exploring and utilizing space,” he said. “I come in to work every day really motivated by the excitement that this sector provides.”