Virgin Galactic aborts first powered test flight after engine failure

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Virgin Galactic suffered a setback during a test flight.
Image: Virgin Galactic

The future of commercial spaceflight is right around the corner. Within the decade, anyone with enough money will be able to purchase a ticket to space. Thanks to companies like Virgin Galactic, those dreams are inching closer to becoming reality.

Although the company has made significant progress in recent years, it hit a bump in the road on Saturday morning. During the first powered test flight of its VSS Unity spaceplane, Virgin Galactic had to abort the mission due to an engine failure. Fortunately, the test pilots on board were able to glide the craft safely back to land.

Even so, Saturday’s failure represents a setback for the company and could delay its commercial spaceflight plans.

What Went Wrong?

Rather than using a rocket booster, Virgin Galactic’s space tourism approach relies on two types of high-altitude planes. The first is a massive aircraft called VMS Eve. It carries the smaller VSS Unity to an altitude of around 50,000 feet.

At that point, the spaceplane disengages from the larger craft and ignites its engine. The VSS Unity then continues its ascent into space. Once it escapes the atmosphere, the pilots temporarily shut off the engine, creating a microgravity environment for several minutes. Passengers can also see the curvature of the Earth at this point in the flight. From there, the spaceplane reenters the atmosphere and glides back to Earth to land on a runway.

During Saturday’s test flight, VSS Unity dropped from the VMS Eve as planned but its engine fizzled out almost instantly. This meant that the pilots couldn’t guide the craft into space and were forced to glide it back to Earth.

Thanks to VSS Unity’s design, the glider-style landing wasn’t a problem. That being said, the test flight was still a failure for Virgin Galactic.

What Comes Next?

Interestingly, Saturday’s test flight didn’t differ much from the company’s previous attempts. Virgin Galactic has conducted two glider-style tests with the VSS Unity. In both cases, the spaceplane’s engine wasn’t meant to turn on.

That being said, the most recent test flight was scheduled to be the second to last one before Virgin takes its founder, Richard Branson, to space. Due to the engine failure, the company could opt to perform an additional test flight before reaching that milestone.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is preparing to take its first batch of paying customers to space. Those flights will occur in 2021 as long as everything goes according to plan. Saturday’s failure shouldn’t jeopardize that timeline, but additional setbacks could.

The company already has its first 600 passengers lined up. They will fly to space from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America facility located in the New Mexico desert. Once the commercial flights begin, the VSS Unity will carry two pilots and up to six passengers on every trip.

Prior to their flight, passengers will spend three days at Spaceport America for training (and enjoy a variety of other luxury amenities). Though ticket prices will likely change over time, the first 600 passengers booked their seats for $250,000 each.

So, while commercial spaceflight is cresting the horizon, it still is out of the realm of possibilities for everyday people.

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