Branson's Virgin Orbit Fails on First Rocket Launch Attempt

Andrew Cummings
May 26, 2020

"We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft", Virgin Orbit reported in a tweet. "Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base", Virgin Orbit said in its official Twitter commentary on the launch on Monday.

Virgin Orbit, which plans to cut the cost of small satellite launches by firing them into space from a moving jet at 35,000 feet, said it had successfully dropped and ignited the rocket, but was forced to abort after that, meaning the rocket did not travel into orbit as planned.

The vehicle was due to be launched today from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 5:30 pm Irish time, Sunday, May 24.

The plane flew to a designated area over the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Los Angeles, for the rocket release.

They plan to fly it above 75 percent of the Earth's atmosphere and launch it from there, as opposed to a ground launch which has been done by Branson's competitors SpaceX and Rocket Lab, with both failing to reach space. Roughly 50 minutes into the flight, Cosmic Girl entered the launch zone and released the two-stage LauncherOne from a nosebleed altitude above the Pacific Ocean. "Thankfully, instead of waiting until after our 1st flight to tackle our 2nd rocket, we've already completed a ton of work to get us back in the air and keep moving forward".

'LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree.

Today would have been the vehicle's first test flight to see that everything works well before starting to operate properly.

The Virgin Orbit crew were disappointed but undaunted, saying that the flight proved numerous company's technologies and provided lots of data. "We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today", Virgin Orbit said. The rocket Pegasus, developed by the Northrop Grumman group, has been around since the 1990s.

A successful launch by Virgin Orbit would have marked a dramatic step in getting back on track after the coronavirus pandemic sent most employees home earlier this year while work spaces, procedures and mission control were adjusted.

Launching a rocket from a plane is more flexible than a vertical blast off because theoretically all a company needs is an airstrip rather than a space launchpad.

How long the setback will affect the company was not immediately clear.

Branson had billed the first of these tourist flights for summer past year, and when that did not happen, for summer of 2020.

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