- Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic suffered another setback to its mission to send commercial passengers into space Saturday
- The VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle embarked on its third test flight to suborbital space and its first from its New Mexico base
- The rocket was forced to turn back to base before reaching space after the engine failed
- The onboard computer lost connection, triggering a safety function cutting off the engine's ignition
- The spaceflight company has been marred by delays from the get-go and is yet to announce when the first tourist flight into space will be
- Branson has over 600 reservations for seats and $80 million in deposits from people wanting to take flightsVirgin Galactic has suffered another setback to its mission to send commercial passengers into space after its rocket unexpectedly turned back before reaching space during its latest test flight.
The VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle on Saturday embarked on its third test flight to suborbital space and its first ever to take place from Virgin Galactic's New Mexico base.
But the flight was brought to an end prematurely before reaching space when the spacecraft's computer lost connection and the engine failed to ignite. The company's optimistic CEO brushed off the disappointment and pointed out the positive takeaway that the 'flight landed beautifully' back at base.
However it marks the latest blow to Richard Branson's spaceflight company which has been marred by delays from the get-go.
The VSS Unity took off at about 8:25am local time from Virgin Galactic's new desert headquarters at Spaceport America, New Mexico.
The spaceship was crewed by two veteran pilots, former NASA astronauts CJ Sturckow and David Mackay, and was attached to the carrier aircraft VMS Eve.
There were no passengers on board the aircraft but it was carrying dummies as well as payload belonging to NASA.
The rocket was then released at an altitude of about 50,000 feet. At this point, it should enter a gentle glide and the engine is supposed to ignite moments later, sending the rocket in a near-vertical climb toward space.
But the spacecraft achieved just one second of powered flight before the motor failed, according to NASASpaceFlight.com.
Virgin Galactic later revealed the spacecraft's onboard computer lost connection and this triggered a safety function to cut off the engine's ignition.
The spacecraft turned back to base, where it made a smooth landing just one hour after take-off.
The company had been chronicling the build-up and start of the flight on its Twitter page before becoming vague after announcing 'we are go for release'.
'SpaceShipTwo Unity is headed for home. We will share more information once we have it,' the company tweeted less than 10 minutes later.
'Touch down,' a follow-up tweet added after just another four minutes.
Virgin Galactic announced the reason behind the failed flight in a brief statement on Twitter.
'The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete. Vehicle and crew are in great shape,' the company tweeted, adding that it had 'several motors ready' and would 'be back to flight soon'.
The company tweeted a statement from CEO Michael Colglazier a short time later admitting the flight did not go as planned but praising the 'picture-perfect landing' from the pilots which he said was 'the level of safety' tourists want.
'Today’s flight landed beautifully, with pilots, planes, and spaceship safe, secure, and in excellent shape - the foundation of every successful mission! Our flight today did not reach space as we had been planning,' he said.
Colglazier explained that when the computer lost connection, a 'fail-safe scenario' was triggered halting the engine's ignition.
'After being released from its mothership, SpaceShipTwo Unity’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection. As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor.'
'Seeing firsthand how our pilots brought Unity in for a picture-perfect landing after an off-nominal condition confirmed this approach. I am even more confident that this is the level of safety that consumers will want and will be expecting from us.'
Colglazier added that the company would now assess what went wrong and would share its findings in due course.
'As we do with every test flight, we are evaluating all the data, including the root cause assessment of the computer communication loss,' he said.
'We look forward to sharing information on our next flight window in the near future.'
The test flight, the first in two years for the company, had already faced several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, followed by poor weather conditions this week.
Virgin Galactic has already done two test flights into space, with the first back in December 2018.
Saturday's aborted flight marked the third and was supposed to lead in to the next phase of final testing where engineers will fly in the passenger cabin and test the hardware and camera settings - as well as the views.
This will now be pushed back until another test flight can be carried out.
The space tourism company - much like its rivals - has faced issues from the start.
Concerns about its safety grew when, in 2014, the fourth test flight of one of the company's SpaceShipTwo crafts broke apart mid-air, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
The schedule has also been marred by numerous delays and the company is yet to confirm when tourists can embark on the first commercial flight into space.
The race to get off the ground has been hotting up with Branson competing with Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to become the first to send tourists into space.
Branson's company has over 600 reservations for seats and $80 million in deposits for 90 minute flights, with famous faces Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber all signing up.
The flights cost $250,000 a ticket, with the craft seating six passengers in total, and include several minutes of weightlessness.