Virgin Galactic’s first attempt to reach suborbit from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico failed Saturday morning after the VSS Unity spaceship’s rocket motor shut down at launch.
The mothership VMS Eve carried the Unity on its underbelly to above 40,000 feet after taking off from the spaceport at 8:24 a.m. in the company’s first attempt to reach space from New Mexico. At 9:16 a.m., the rocket broke away from Eve as planned, and the two-man crew, Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot CJ Sturckow, fired up the the engines to shoot to the edge of space at 50 miles up.
But the motor suddenly shut down after a moment or so, forcing the pilots to abort the flight and glide back to Earth, where the ship landed safely on the spaceport runway at 9:27 a.m.
At first, Virgin Galactic offered little information on what went wrong.
“The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete,” the company said in a short tweet about 25 minutes after the Unity landed. “Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back in flight soon.”
Late Saturday afternoon, however, CEO Michael Colglazier offered more detail on the morning’s events in a series of tweets. Colglazier said an onboard computer glitch caused safety features imbedded in the rocket to automatically kick in.
“After being released from its mothership, SpaceShipTwo Unity’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection,” Colglazier wrote. “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 system worked as intended, allowing the pilots to safely glide back to Earth as needed at any point during flight, Colglazier added. That demonstrated the effectiveness of the rocket’s safety protocols and controls, strengthening company confidence in established procedures.
“I am even more confident that this is the level of safety that consumers will want and will be expecting from us,” Colglazier wrote. “As we do with every test flight, we are evaluating all the data, including the root cause assessment of the computer communication loss. We look forward to sharing information on our next flight window in the near future.”
It’s not clear whether the aborted flight will delay plans for commercial launch of passenger rides to space. The company has said it will first conduct three test flights to space from Spaceport America before bringing customers on board. Saturday’s launch was the first of those three.
The company planned a second launch early next year to include four company crew members in the passenger cabin, followed by a long-awaited flight with Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson on board.
The company conducted two glide flights with the Unity from the spaceport earlier this year, whereby the rocket detaches from the mothership and floats back down to Earth. Saturday’s test, however, was to mark the start of powered flights into space in preparation for commercial service.
To date, more than 600 people have paid up to $250,000 for a ticket on the rocket, and about 900 more have laid down $1,000 deposits to reserve a priority place in line to buy up seats once the company re-launches ticket sales next year. If and when commercial flights do begin, they would provide paying passengers the world’s first space tourism opportunity, allowing adventurists to experience a few minutes floating in microgravity while taking in spectacular views of the Earth below.
The Unity has successfully flown to space two times before, in December 2018 and February 2019, from the Mojave Air & Space Port in southern California. Last year, Virgin Galactic moved its base of operations to the New Mexico spaceport, where it’s been testing the rocket, the mothership and all related infrastructure in preparation for commercial launch.
The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in late 2019. In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s first powered test flight, company stock soared, from about $17 per share in late October to nearly $34 on Dec. 7. The stock price closed at $32.04 per share on Friday.
Rich Smith, who follows Virgin Galactic as a writer for the investor advisory service “The Motley Fool,” said Saturday’s aborted flight could have a negative impact on stock prices when markets open on Monday.
“In the short term, traders will view this as a disappointment,” Smith told the Journal. “It’s a reminder that space is hard and there is risk in this stock. The flight test was anticipated as a positive catalyst to attract investors, but that was replaced by negative news that could drive the stock price down.”
Still, the impact may be minimal in the long term if Saturday’s mishap doesn’t cause major delays in the flight-test program, Smith said. In fact, it could even be positive, because the rocket’s smooth return to Earth showed that the system’s safety mechanisms worked well.
“You want technical problems to happen on test flights and not during inaugural commercial flights with customers on board,” Smith said. “That’s what the test program is for. …The rocket glided home and landed, illustrating the safety of the system.”
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