Virgin Orbit first launch attempt fails

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Updated 8 p.m. Eastern with comments from company CEO Dan Hart.

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed to reach orbit in its first launch attempt May 25, with the mission “terminated” moments after the rocket’s release from its aircraft.

The company’s “Cosmic Girl” aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 2:56 p.m. Eastern, after a launch attempt May 24 was scrubbed because of a faulty sensor on the rocket. After a 54-minute flight to the designated launch zone, near the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast, the plane released the LauncherOne rocket from its left wing.

However, Virgin Orbit, which did not provide a live webcast of the launch but instead offered updates via social media, tweeted moments later that while there was a “clean release” of the rocket from the aircraft, “the mission terminated shortly into the flight.”

“We ignited the engine, and it looks like successfully,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a phone interview a few hours after the launch. “It flew for a handful of seconds, and then we had an issue.”

Hart said that what that issue was — an “anomaly” as described by the company in a statement after the launch — is not yet known. It did, though, cause the NewtonThree engine powering the rocket’s first stage to shut down.

Virgin Orbit acknowledged that achieving orbit on a first launch would be difficult, noting that, based on historical records, only about 50% of first launches of new vehicles are successful. The second LauncherOne rocket is nearing completion at the company’s factory, with several more in various stages of production.

Company executives emphasized prior to the flight, including a media briefing May 23, that simply igniting the NewtonThree engine in the rocket’s first stage would be a key milestone for the flight. Hart said that the events leading up to the release and ignition of the first stage went smoothly.

“What we did today is really demonstrated the challenging aspects of air launch,” he said. “Even though it was not as long a flight as we’d liked, we did burn down quite a lot of the risks associated with flying, and learned a lot about how the vehicle behaves.”

Hart said that engineers will spend the next several weeks reviewing the data from the launch attempt, while others continue working on the next LauncherOne rocket. The results of the investigation may lead to additional testing of that next rocket or other changes, the extent of which is not yet clear.

LauncherOne started as a Virgin Galactic project, announced by company founder Richard Branson at the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2012. As originally conceived, LauncherOne would use the same WhiteKnightTwo plane built to serve as a carrier aircraft for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle.

In 2015, Virgin Galactic changed course and acquired a Boeing 747 from airline Virgin Atlantic; the name “Cosmic Girl” dates back to its use by the airline. Using a 747 allowed the company to increase the size, and payload capacity, of the rocket.

Virgin Galactic spun out the LauncherOne project into a separate company, Virgin Orbit, in March 2017, based in Long Beach, California. It later established a wholly-owned U.S.-incorporated subsidiary, VOX Space, to work with national security customers.

Virgin Orbit has gradually built up a manifest of commercial and government customers. Hart said in a May 23 call with reporters that the total value of its manifest is in “the hundreds of millions” of dollars but did not give a specific figure. The company set a price of about $12 million a launch prior to entering service but he said that “pricing will follow the market as we get into full operations and we’ll adjust accordingly.”

LauncherOne is one of a growing number of small launch vehicles intended to provide dedicated launches of small satellites. While there are more than 100 such vehicles in various stages of development, by some estimates, Hart said he didn’t see nearly as much competition for his company.

“I don’t see it as very packed,” he said of the market in the pre-launch media call. “We’re differentiated in our air-launch capability, which gives us much, much higher flexibility, and even mobility.”

Most of those small launch vehicles that serve as potential competition to LauncherOne are still in earlier phases of development. “Launch is still a highly, highly needed commodity,” he said.

Despite failing to reach orbit, Hart said both he and his employees were remarkably upbeat. “The mood was actually very high” among the LauncherOne team, he said, because they made it through countdown and release. “There’s a lot of pride in the team that we successfully did that, and we did it so uneventfully.”

“The sense I have from the whole team is that there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that we’ll quickly get to root cause and address it.”