by Douglas Messier
It was a flight 22 months in the making. But, when it came time for the rubber to meet the oxidizer, the whole thing suddenly flamed out.
The hybrid engine on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity failed to fire properly on Saturday, sending the suborbital rocket plane, pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow and a load of NASA-sponsored experiments into a rapid descent and landing back at Spaceport America, instead of a graceful parabolic arc into suborbital space.
Although the misfire will cause another delay in a flight test program that has already lasted for more than decade, Virgin Galactic emphasized the positives.
“Our flight landed beautifully, with pilots, planes, and spaceship safe, secure, and in excellent shape — the foundation of every successful mission!” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement.
“After being released from its mothership, the spaceship’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection,” Colglazier added. “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.”
Virgin Galactic is a “sky is always blue” kind of company regardless of what was going wrong in or out of public view. Colglazier, whose former employer, Disney, promotes its theme parks as “the happiest place on Earth,” seems to be fitting right in.
It is true that the mishap gave the pilots and ground control team experience in an abort scenario. And it is much better that these failures happen during a flight test so you can avoid them when you have four billionaires paying a quarter million dollars each in the passenger cabin.
Still, the flight was yet another setback for a company that has struggled for more than 16 years to bring commercial suborbital joy rides to the 1 percent. When he unveiled plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004, Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson promised flights would begin in 2007.
The aborted suborbital flight was to have been the first of three final tests prior to beginning commercial service next year. The flight was originally scheduled to take place in November, but was delayed due to a COVID-19 related shutdown ordered by the New Mexico state government.
Virgin Galactic had planned two additional flight tests for the first quarter of 2021. The first would have four employees in the cabin for the first time to evaluate the passenger experience.
Branson will be a passenger on the final flight test. The original plan was for the company’s founder to fly on the first commercial mission. However, Virgin Galactic felt Branson’s evaluation of the passenger experience would be valuable prior to flying ticket holders.
The plan to complete the flight test program by the end of March has now been scrambled as engineers search for what went wrong. With Christmas less than two weeks away, a repeat of the flight test with NASA experiments could slip into next year.
The aborted flight came nearly 22 months after VSS Unity‘s more recent powered flight. The rocket plane flew the program’s first two suborbital flights in December 2018 and February 2019.
VSS Unity was then taken out of service while its cabin interior was outfitted with seats and improvements were made to its airframe. Virgin Galactic said that VSS Unity emerged from the hangar with an improved flight control system and vertical stabilizers.
VSS Unity subsequently made glide flights from Spaceport America in May and June 2020 to test the modifications before attempting a powered flight on Saturday.
If the current plan holds, Virgin Galactic will complete the test program with a total of 12 powered flights. That number would include five suborbital ones above 50 miles (80.4 km) in altitude that the Federal Aviation Administration considers the boundary of space.
One of those powered flights ended in tragedy when the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke up over the Mojave Desert on Oct. 31, 2014. Copilot Mike Alsbury died in the breakup while Pete Siebold parachuted to safety.
Completing the test program with 11 successful powered flights is far from what Virgin Galactic previously told potential investors when it was seeking to raise $260 million in 2008.
Virgin Galactic said that prior to beginning commercial service, the company planned to put SpaceShipTwo through “50 test flights, of which approximately 30 are powered with the rocket motor,” according to a Credit Suisse information memorandum dated December 2008 obtained by Parabolic Arc.
In August 2009, Aabar Investments signed an agreement to invest $280 million in Virgin Galactic for a 31.8 percent share of the company. The company later invested an additional $110 million to boost its share to 37.8 percent.
Aabar is a sovereign wealth fund owned by the Abu Dhabi government. It is charged with investing the nation’s oil wealth.