Virgin Galactic lit the SpaceShipTwo rocket engine for the first time in the skies of New Mexico today, but only for a moment before the engine shut down and the aircraft flew back for a safe landing at Spaceport America.
The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo vehicle known as VSS Unity could make it to the 50-mile milestone with two test pilots at the controls. Unity has already made it twice, in 2018 and 2019, when test operations were conducted in Mojave Air and Space Port, California – but this was the first planned motorized test flight since moving to Spaceport America.
Today's excursion followed two slip tests that were conducted in May and June of this year. In the early stages of the flight everything seemed normal. VSS Unity was carried into the air from its two-hull mothership known as the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve and was able to fly freely at over 40,000 feet.
A webcast provided by NASASpaceflight.com showed the flash of the aircraft's hybrid rocket engine, but only for a second.
After the outbreak of the fire, test pilots Dave Mackay and C.J. Sturckow Unity for a sliding landing back to the spaceport.
"The firing sequence for the rocket motor was not completed," Virgin Galactic stated in a tweet after landing. “The vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several engines ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and fly again soon. "
Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic's CEO, provided further details in a statement released later that day:
“Today's flight landed beautifully, with pilots, airplanes and spaceships, safely and in excellent shape – the basis of every successful mission!
“Our flight today did not reach the room as we had planned. After the release from the mother ship, the on-board computer of the spacecraft, which monitors the rocket motor, lost the connection. This triggered a fail-safe scenario, as planned, where the rocket motor was deliberately stopped igniting. After this incident, our pilots flew back to Spaceport America and landed gracefully as usual.
“When I became CEO, I was briefed on the security technology of our space system, which is deliberately designed so that our pilots can safely glide back to the spaceport at any point in the flight profile. When we saw firsthand how our pilots took Unity to a beautiful landing after a non-nominal condition was met, that approach was confirmed. I am even more confident that this is the level of safety that consumers expect and will expect from us.
“As with every test flight, we evaluate all the data, including assessing the cause of the loss of computer communication. We look forward to sharing information on our next flight window in the near future. "
At the beginning of 2020, Virgin Galactic had hoped to fly paying passengers by the end of the year. Hundreds of customers have paid up to $ 250,000 each for a ticket to zoom in over 80 kilometers in altitude, experience a few minutes of weightlessness, and see the curved earth beneath the black sky of space.
The COVID-19 pandemic has improved that schedule. Now Virgin Galactic is aiming for 2021 to go into commercial operations – and the company's billionaire founder Richard Branson is on a high-profile ride.
SpaceShipTwo has not only flown humans, but also flown scientific payloads for a NASA-supported suborbital space research program. Several payloads were packed aboard VSS Unity for today's test flight, but the scientific experiments are unlikely to have received the required dose of weightlessness.
Virgin Galactic isn't the only billionaire-backed company designed to take passengers on suborbital space travel. Jeff Bezos' CEO of Amazon's Blue Origin space project is working on its own suborbital launch system called New Shepard. This system has carried out 13 flight tests without screws over the course of five years.
Like Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin's New Shepard flies scientific experiments. And like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin has had to postpone its passenger travel plans, partly due to COVID-19 challenges.
Unlike Blue Origin, which is privately supported by Bezos, Virgin Galactic has been a public company since last year. This could be additional motivation for the SpaceShipTwo team to complete the test program and move to fully commercial operation.
Several Twitter users took note of the financial aspect. "They made us 30% poorer today, but it's good to hear everyone is safe," wrote one. Another urged Virgin Galactic to move quickly to the next test flight: “Please do it tomorrow! I can't stand the sale on Monday. "
Main image: Virgin Galactic's mothership, WhiteKnightTwo Eve, takes SpaceShipTwo Unity into the air for a flight test from New Mexico Spaceport America. Photo credit: Virgin Galactic