Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight system in the air.


Virgin Galactic

A long-awaited rocket-powered flight over the southern New Mexico desert on Saturday was much shorter than Virgin Galactic and its founder, Richard Branson, had hoped for.

The company’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft took off from the Spaceport America spaceport at 7:24 a.m. PT (8:24 a.m. MT), carrying the passenger spacecraft SpaceShipTwo Unity. The pair then spent about 45 minutes climbing to release altitude at more than 40,000 feet (12,192 meters).

About 50 minutes after takeoff, a livestream from NASASpaceflight.com appeared to show Unity separating and its rocket engine firing for just about a second before shutting down early.

“After being released from its mothership, SpaceShipTwo Unity’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection,” the company reported later on Twitter. “As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor.” 

Unity glided back for a landing at Spaceport America, and the company confirmed that all pilots and vehicles are safe and secure.

“As we do with every test flight, we are evaluating all the data, including the root cause assessment of the computer communication loss,” the company added. “We look forward to sharing information on our next flight window in the near future.”

After years of development and delays due to a fatal accident and now the COVID-19 pandemic, the company’s hope to send Branson and then paying customers to space by 2020 had already been dashed even before this aborted test flight.

Virgin has completed powered test flights from California. But it aims to perform two test flights from its commercial home base in New Mexico before Branson finally gets to take the joyride he’s been waiting (and paying) for since the company’s founding in 2004.

Saturday’s flight was also carrying some small payloads for NASA. It’s not yet clear when the company will try again.

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