Virgin Orbit’s first launch demonstration flight has ended in a very unceremonious fashion. The spaceflight firm reported a “clean release” of LauncherOne from the Cosmic Girl host aircraft, but the rocket’s journey “terminated shortly into the flight.” In other words, LauncherOne didn’t have a realistic chance of reaching orbit.
The company had warned that the flight might not end well. This was the first time anyone had lit up a liquid-fuelled rocket at high altitude in a horizontal position, and it wasn’t clear if the rocket would last more than a brief moment.
We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base.
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) May 25, 2020
The setback suggests it will be a while before Virgin can achieve its goal of carrying rockets into orbit on a regular basis. However, that’s why the launch demo took place — this is to show what went wrong and, ideally, refine the system so that it works properly in subsequent flights. The challenge is the level of effort needed. It’s not clear if Virgin will only require slight tweaks, or if this is just the first step in a very long process.
Update 8:00PM ET: Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart offered the following statement following the launch demo: “Our team performed their prelaunch and flight operations with incredible skill today. Test flights are instrumented to yield data and we now have a treasure trove of that. We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked. Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”