Virgin Galactic test flight fails to reach space after failsafe landing triggered

Virgin Galactic attempted a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo Unity spaceplane on Saturday, but the flight was cut short after the spacecraft detached from its carrier aircraft. A failsafe prevented Unity’s rocket engines from firing up, because the computer that monitors the rockets somehow lost their connection to the rocket engines themselves, Virgin Galactic revealed on Monday.

The failsafe cut-off meant that both SpaceShipTwo Unity, and the carrier aircraft, along with all pilots on board, returned safely to Earth for a successful landing without incident. But the test flight was meant to go all the way to space, and this would’ve been a key stage-setting event to clear the way for flying the first actual paying passengers from the company’s New Mexico spaceport.

Virgin Galactic has flown to space on two prior occasions, including first in 2018, and then again in 2019. This would’ve been its first suborbital spaceflight from New Mexico, however, which is a required preparatory step before it can serve commercial customers from it’s operational base there.

“Virgin Galactic is now conducting post flight analysis and can so far report that the onboard computer which monitors the propulsion system lost connection, triggering a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor,” Virgin shared in a blog post detailing what happened during the test. “This system, like others on the spaceship, is designed such that it defaults to a safe state whenever power or communication with sensors is lost. The pilots in the spaceship, as well as the engineers and pilots in mission control, are well prepared for any off-nominal results, as they plan and rehearse many potential scenarios during pre-flight simulation practice sessions, including a scenario where the rocket motor does not ignite after release from the mothership.”

This is obviously not an ideal outcome for the publicly-traded space tourism company, and the market’s response reflects public investor disappointment. Virgin Galactic’s CEO Michael Colglazer explained that this test’s conclusion, while far from nominal, shows that its safety measures are working as designed. He added that they’ll be continuing to progress with their test flight program, albeit with a re-do of this one before continuing on.

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