Throughout his career, Dan Hart has put purpose at the forefront of what he does. Having joined Sir Richard Branson’s innovative commercial space ﬁrm, Virgin Orbit, in 2017, he uses orbiting assets to enable better communication, navigation and understanding of our planet.
“My passion and purpose in my career has always been developing new capabilities to broaden humanity’s abilities to understand ourselves through looking to the heavens,” he shares.
After a long stint at The Boeing Company, Dan was intrigued by the philosophy behind Branson’s view of business and how he uses business for good. The idea of developing a brand-new technology capability for small satellite launches, which is a new area, also caught his imagination. “After some discussions with the board and then eventually with Richard, I really felt like, ‘Boy, I want to do this,’” he recalls.
When Dan started at Virgin Orbit, there was a keen focus on research and development but he wanted a greater emphasis placed on structure, programmability and project execution. “There were some great ideas and, after we retooled the team a bit, we got ourselves moving,” he says.
“We developed the first liquid rocket to fly off an aircraft and go to orbit in history. We launched it successfully on 17 January this year, where we took off from a runway in Southern California and flew out over the ocean.”
An hour or so after the launch, 10 NASA research satellites were orbiting the planet. “That was a pretty glorious day,” Dan smiles. “It’s part of our focus on opening space for good – it’s our mission. I think everybody at Virgin Orbit is really in it to change the world in some way.”
I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Can’t we do something to help the companies that are making ventilators?
Unlike many other companies, Virgin Orbit is quite vertically integrated and draws on its teams, which have a great deal of expertise and technical depth, in order to be able to operate in this way. “We take in raw materials like rolls of fiber, blanks of metal and powder. The rocket supplies go in one end of the building and completed rockets go out the other,” Dan explains.
One of the benefits of this approach is that development can be made as fast as possible with any changes being quick to implement. In traditional aerospace, it’s typical to go to the company’s contracts team and lawyers to try to make a change with a supplier.
“We don’t have too many big suppliers,” he says. “Boeing obviously made the airplane, so we work with them periodically, and we have a few other suppliers that make pumps and some other key areas. But in general, we do it ourselves – that’s probably the core of our operational excellence and our flexibility.”
Dan explains that because advanced manufacturing and automation are vital to what Virgin Orbit does, the company has also created a strong partnership with DMG MORI. “It is really a leader in additive manufacturing as well as traditional manufacturing. We’ve been beta testing and using some of its most advanced manufacturing machines to make our rocket engines,” he reveals.
My passion and purpose in my career has always been developing new capabilities to broaden humanity’s abilities to understand ourselves through looking to the heavens.
When Dan, who is based in California, saw the damaging impact of COVID-19 in Europe and then on the East Coast of the US, he knew he had to use the group of engineers and manufacturing experts at Virgin Orbit to help.
“I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Can’t we do something to help the companies that are making ventilators?’ So I reached out to the governor of California with a short note saying, ‘What can we do to help?’” he remembers.
Within 24 hours, Dan and his propulsion team had organized a video chat with the University of California in Irvine and a set of doctors who were trying to make a ventilator that could be mass-produced. Six to eight weeks later, Virgin Orbit was producing several hundred of these devices for emergency medical services in California.
“It shows how versatile and agile the business is, and the genuine care and importance our staff feel about the community,” Dan says proudly. “It goes back to the purpose of improving the world.”
The industry Virgin Orbit operates in is rapidly transforming, with technological innovation playing a central role in this shift. “The technology in satellites has changed dramatically over the past 5–10 to years. The same kind of technology that is used to make smartphones is making satellites. Using small satellites, we’re really able to do some of the heavy lifting in space that was normally done by devices the size of school buses or SUVs,” Dan says.
“Of course, we’re connected with the United States Department of Defense and there’s always a crossover between commercial, civil and military launches too,” Dan points out. “Our business is focused on this new generation of small satellites and this unique capability to fly from any airport that can handle a 747 and be able to fly into space.”
Following the company’s successful major launch in January, Dan is ready to engage with the larger market as he prepares for another launch. “We are in full swing right now with three launch operations. It’s ramping up very quickly.”
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