Virgin Orbit's Rocket System Test Mission Falls Short

Private spaceflight has always been one step forward, two steps back as billionaire mogul Richard Branson discovered Sunday after the Long Beach-based Virgin Orbit failed to achieve orbit during a crucial two-stage test of the company's orbital rocket system.

The mission ended Sunday afternoon after the company's LauncherOne rocker was released from "Cosmic Girl" - a Boeing Co. 747 plane that took off from Mojave Air and Space Port just before noon on Sunday. The orbital rocket system is the competitor to that of Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket for satellite launches.

About an hour after takeoff, "Cosmic Girl" released the rocket, but, the mission failed three minutes after released.

“We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight,'' a tweet from Virgin Orbit stated. “Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base.''

Musk commiserated with his fellow aerospace company about the difficulties of space travel, sending his condolences via Twitter.

“Orbit is hard,'' he wrote. “Took us four attempts with Falcon 1.''

Virgin Orbit has conducted at least 20 previous test of its rocket launch system, but yesterday's test was the first ignition for LauncherOne in what company officials described as the "apex of a five-year-long development program."

Virgin Orbit's goal is to use their hybrid plane/rocket system to launch small satellites into space at a far cheaper price than what's offered by its competitors.

The company said that even failures of their tests provided meaningful results they could study for future flights. About half of maiden flights conducted by government and private companies typically fail about half the time.

“LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree,'' the company posted on Twitter. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected.''

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the team performed admirably and will be ready to try again soon, with preparations already underway at the company's Long Beach manufacturing facility.

“We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked'' Hart said. “Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting.''

Photo: Getty Images

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