Virgin Galactic aborted a landmark test flight of its rocket-powered space plane, despite everything getting the all-clear a minute before launch.
Although the air-launched spaceplane was successfully carried to an altitude of about 9.4 miles (15km) it did not decouple from its mother ship as planned.
The launch was not live streamed as the company said it was “saving that moment for a special flight in the future” with no guests or media on site as part of strict COVID-19 protocols, which had also seen the launch date delayed.
Thread: our CEO, Michael Colglazier, on today’s flight test. Today’s flight landed beautifully, with pilots, planes, and spaceship safe, secure, and in excellent shape — the foundation of every successful mission! Our flight today did not reach space as we had been planning. pic.twitter.com/pqfUAtp6UH
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 12, 2020
Virgin Galactic instead live-tweeted the mission, but more than eight minutes after it said there was less than a minute to decoupling, it announced the spacecraft was instead heading home. The crew landed safely.
“Our flight today did not reach space as we had been planning,” Virgin Galactic chief executive Michael Colglazier said on Saturday.
“After being released from its mothership, the spaceship’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection.
“As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor. Following this occurrence, our pilots flew back to Spaceport America and landed gracefully as usual.”
The mission cancellation follows tragedy striking during the company’s first test launch in 2014, when the SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke apart during flight and crashed, killing one pilot while the other was seriously injured after parachuting.
Numerous successful tests have been carried out since the redesign following the 2014 disaster.
Although several test flights have taken place, this was to be the first ever launch from the Spaceport America runway in New Mexico, “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport”.
The mission would have made New Mexico the third American state, behind California and Florida, to have launched a spacecraft.
SpaceShipTwo works by decoupling from its mother ship before its rocket fires it into sub-orbital space 50 miles (80km) above the Earth, exposing the crew and cargo to more than two minutes of microgravity.
There are arguments as to whether the 50 mile altitude qualifies as outer space, with the US government stating this is the boundary of space, although some standards identify the boundary at 62 miles (100km).
Virgin Galactic ultimately aims to be operating space tourism flights from next year, and already has more than 600 customers for the $250,000 (£189,000) seats – including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Saturday’s launch would have been the first of three final test flights which will take place before the company’s commercial operations properly begin.
Sir Richard Branson, who founded company, will himself test the service on the third of these flights – 11 years after he first aimed to deliver them.
The second phase of testing would comprise flying four mission specialists in the cabin “to test and refine the equipment, procedures, training and overall experience”, according to the company’s statement.
The company ultimately aims to operate a fleet of five spaceplanes which will carry tourists into sub-orbital space, as well as scientific payloads for NASA and similar organisations.
NASA had an electromagnetic field experiment aboard Saturday’s flight, as well as a dust collision experiment – both of which have been tested in different forms in other test flights before.
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