Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo falls short of space, glides home

VSS Unity and VMS Eve take off at 8:24 a.m. MST for Virgin’s suborbital launch attempt. Credit: Virgin Galactic

DEC. 12, 2020–Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital, crewed flight out of Spaceport America didn’t go as planned this morning.

At 8:24 a.m. MST, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity – a suborbital crewed spaceplane, and its mothership, VSS Eve, took off from Spaceport America for a suborbital launch attempt. While this attempt did not have an official live broadcast – Virgin Galactic used live text updates – it appeared everything up until drop was going according to plan. However, at 9:17 a.m., after falling from Eve, VSS Unity failed to ignite its hybrid rocket motor and was forced to glide back to Spaceport America, successfully touching down and stopping on the runway at 9:28 a.m., with crewmembers CJ Sturckow, a veteran Shuttle astronaut, and Dave Mackey onboard, along with payloads from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.

It is not known at this time what caused Unity’s failure to ignite its motor. Virgin Galactic said in a public statement on Twitter that “The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete. Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready… we will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon.” Also of note, observers noted a long smoke trail following Unity well after ignition abort.

Unity’s flight from Spaceport America was a very important milestone, for both Virgin Galactic and the state of New Mexico. Virgin Galactic plans to take passengers aboard Unity and other SpaceShipTwo vehicles in the future, and they are a publicly-traded company that had high stakes for this mission. While an abort is of course miles better than a failure – they will still feel a hit. As for the state, up until now, only four regions have ever hosted launches to space – Cape Canaveral, Baikonur, California, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. Had the launch gone successfully, New Mexico and Spaceport America would have become the fifth – a critical milestone for Virgin to start flying passengers.

What is important for Virgin Galactic, even in the midst of an aborted mission – is that the crew are safe and home, and had there been passengers, they would have been too. SpaceShipTwo is set apart from all crewed spacecraft other than the Shuttle in that it can glide (and much better than the Shuttle!), which gives it impressive abort capability in cases just like these.

Unity has flown to space before and will most likely continue to do so. After three atmospheric powered flight tests, VSS Unity reached the United States’ definition of space – over 80 km, almost two years ago to this day on December 13, 2018, also marking its crew, Sturckow and Mark Stucky, as the first American astronauts to visit space since the Shuttle’s retirement. It flew again on its most recent spaceflight, on February 22, 2019, reaching an even higher apogee of 89.9 km (10 km short of the international space boundary), and carrying a passenger too – VG’s Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses.

Most importantly, the crew is landed and safe, as confirmed by Virgin Galactic. Further information will be added as it is made available by Virgin Galactic. For more updates, follow us on Twitter at (@WeAreSpaceScout).

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