Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is going to become a publicly traded company, and Boeing is going to help. It’s a sign that new commercial space technology is ready for prime time and also solidifies Boeing ‘s status as a player in the new space race.
Monday, the special-purpose acquisition company NextGen Acquisition Corp II (ticker: NGCA) announced it was merging with Virgin Orbit, which will carry payloads to space for commercial customers. Branson’s Virgin Galactic (SPCE), of course, will carry tourists.
SPAC deals usually include a so-called private investment in public equity, or PIPE, a source of cash for a startup in addition to what it receives in the deal that brings it public. Boeing (BA) is going to invest in Virgin Orbit through the PIPE offering.
Virgin Orbit will take in about $483 million when the deal closes. About $100 million will come from the PIPE, while the SPAC’s trust account will give the startup about $383 million. All the PIPE investors, including Boeing, will end up owing about 3% of Virgin Orbit’s stock.
The deal values Virgin Orbit at about $3.2 billion, which is a positive for other space-startup stocks. Rocket Lab, for instance, is currently valued at about $4.4 billion net of the cash brought in from its merger with the SPAC Vector Acquisition. That deal closed Friday.
Both Orbit and Rocket Lab have similar business models, offering both launch and satellite services. Rocket Lab, however, has conducted about 18 successful launches. Orbit has completed about three.
Astra Space (ASTR) is another publicly traded launch-services company. It is valued at about $2.2 billion net of cash. Astra makes very small rockets and plans to launch many of them, with payloads from about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) to 150 kilograms.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has a payload capacity of about 300 kilograms. The Virgin Orbit rocket has a payload capacity of about 300 to 500 kilograms.
Those are small payloads compared with SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin (LMT). The Boeing investment in Virgin Orbit, in one respect, is an effort by the company to expand the breadth of its space business.
“Boeing is a strategic investor to Virgin Orbit,” Boeing said in a statement noting that it has a long relationship with Virgin Group and its affiliates. “We believe in the importance of the satellite launch market and the capabilities Virgin Orbit brings to the industry.”
Boeing has other space business beyond its stake in ULA. The company is building a reusable spaceship, called Starliner, that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. A Starliner test launch was recently delayed by an engineering issue discovered just before the flight.
Rocket Lab is still worth more than Virgin Orbit, but Orbit is a little more aggressive it its business projections. It plans to have about $1.5 billion in 2025 sales. Rocket Lab expects about $749 million in 2025 sales.
Stock in both Astra and Vector Acquisition—the SPAC that merged with Rocket Lab last week—was up more than 3% in Monday trading.