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OneWeb’s satellite plant returns to full-scale production

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 1 (UPI) — Florida-based OneWeb Satellites has returned to full-scale production of spacecraft after its big client and part owner, OneWeb, emerged from bankruptcy.

The high-tech factory near Kennedy Space Center churns out eight satellites a week, which is the average pace it was on before the bankruptcy, CEO Tony Gingiss said in an interview Friday.

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“We are stronger and leaner as an organization now,” Gingiss said. “We hit pause, like many others had to in 2020, due to the pandemic and the OneWeb bankruptcy, but it made us think a lot about our value proposition.”

The company is leaner because it is operating with less than 200 people, whereas the plant had almost 400 at its peak in early 2020, he said. OneWeb Satellites plans to hire only about 15 to 20 more to maintain full production.

OneWeb Satellites’ facility began operations in March 2019, to build satellites for OneWeb’s planned constellation of up to 650 broadband communications satellites. The company made over 70 satellites in 12 months, before the bankruptcy threw the operation into doubt.

The pandemic was the reason for closing the factory for over a week, Gingiss said, and not the bankruptcy.

“We hit pause because people wanted to take breaks for their health or their family’s health, and to thoroughly clean the factory,” Gingiss said. “But we did reopen and produced about one satellite per week at the low point.”

The manufacturer, which is half-owned by the OneWeb parent company, delivered 36 satellites recently for a planned launch in Russia on Dec. 17. OneWeb has 74 satellites in orbit.

OneWeb declared bankruptcy after failing to get more investment from its primary investors, including Japan-based Softbank. But the British government and Bharti Global, an Indian conglomerate announced in July they would buy the company out of bankruptcy.

OneWeb Satellites is a joint venture between the OneWeb parent company and France-based Airbus.

Neither OneWeb nor OneWeb Satellites has announced the full scope of their plans since the bankruptcy officially ended in November, said Chris Quilty, an analyst with Quilty Analytics in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“It would appear there’s a little misalignment between the goal of the U.K. government which is to launch GPS satellites, and Bharti, which is communications,” Quilty said. “They are locked into a first-generation design for the time being just to meet the conditions of their licensing.”

The British government also said in a formal announcement that its OneWeb investment will help to build up manufacturing in that nation.

“The British government has made it pretty clear they intend to move manufacturing from Florida to the U.K., so it’s not clear what would happen to the Florida plant if that goes through,” Quilty said.

Airbus is developing new business for the Florida plant, an Airbus official said in a email response.

“Airbus remains a partner with OneWeb…and is actively pursuing and executing on opportunities with other customers” to use the satellite platform design, Airbus’ Head of Space Systems Debra Facktor said.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four astronauts is pictured approaching the International Space Station for docking on November 16, 2020. The trip from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida took 27 and a half hours. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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