Internet firm OneWeb plans to begin launching 35 to 40 communications satellites a month in December, and has 27 Soyuz rocket missions lined up through European launch company Arianespace to send them aloft, company officials said in Florida on Monday.
“Those are the best rockets we could find for the quality, price and capability we were looking for,” OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler said. “We will not be launching from Florida for now.”
Company officials emphasized that OneWeb is a commercial firm looking to make a profit, but also has a mission to provide high-speed Internet access to parts of the globe where access is difficult. It plans to work with schools in developing nations to help them afford Internet connectivity.
OneWeb announced in 2017 that it had purchased five launches from Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin. That firm is building its planned New Glenn rocket near OneWeb’s satellite plant next to Kennedy Space Center. But that’s off the table for the immediate future, Wyler said. The New Glenn still is being developed.
“At some point, we will launch with Blue Origin,” Wyler said. “They are building a large rocket safely.”
Blue Origin and SpaceX are focused on reusable rockets, while Soyuz rockets are not reusable. But Wyler said he’s not convinced reusability always is cheaper.
Although he did not mention SpaceX, which has become the most frequent launch operation in Florida, Wyler said he is open to all launch providers if they meet the company’s needs. SpaceX is developing its own Internet satellite network.
On Monday morning, OneWeb hosted an array of VIPs at its new plant’s opening ceremony, including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.
Ross praised OneWeb’s emphasis on safety in space. The satellites have grappling hooks on them to allow retrieval if they malfunction, and are designed to burn up in the atmosphere at the end of their useful life.
“You’re improving the prospect of millions of people to connect to the Internet,” Ross said.
The satellite plant is part of a joint venture with European aerospace giant Airbus. It aims to make two satellites per day soon. Eventually, OneWeb wants to have a network of 2,000 satellites in orbit.
“OneWeb is doing for satellites what Henry Ford did for cars,” Pai said.
The plant employs about 150 people, and should have nearly 250 employees by year’s end, said Kai Schmidt, the human resources director.