Military Capabilities

RAF seconds pilot to Virgin Orbit satellite programme

04 October 2019

Virgin Orbit is developing the launch of small satellites from a 747 testbed aircraft. Source: Crown Copyright

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) has seconded one of its pilots to the Virgin Orbit satellite launch programme as part of a wider ‘ambitious’ national defence space effort.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 3 October that Eurofighter Typhoon and test pilot Flight Lieutenant Mathew ‘Stanny’ Stannard had been selected to join Virgin’s Boeing 747-based small-satellite launch programme.

“Flt Lt Stannard is a Typhoon pilot with one of the RAF’s test and evaluation squadrons and is expected to join the pioneering Virgin Orbit programme next year, pending final US and UK regulatory approvals,” the MoD said, adding, “The secondment is expected to last three years and will see Flt Lt Stannard join the fleet of expert ‘test pilots’ trialling Boeing 747-400 aircraft from which cutting-edge satellites will be launched.”

The MoD’s decision to second a pilot with Virgin Orbit was first announced at the 2019 Chief of the Air Staff’s Air and Space Power Conference (ASPC) in London on 18 July. At the time the then-Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt said, “Science fiction is becoming science fact [and] one day I want to see RAF pilots earning their ‘space wings’ and flying beyond the stratosphere.”

At the same time as the announcement was made, Mordaunt outlined a raft of space-based efforts for the MoD valued at GBP30 million (USD36.9 million). As well as the Virgin Orbit secondment, these comprised a satellite development and launch programme, a counter counter-satellite effort, the creation of a new military command to oversee operations in the space domain and beyond, a competition to boost the capabilities of UK satellites in orbit, and the building of new ground control station facilities.

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