On Saturday, nearly two full years after its last powered flight, Virgin Galactic tried its svelte SpaceShipTwo spaceplane on its third suborbital flight above 80 km.
However, shortly after the spaceplane was released from its carrier, named White Knight Two, the firing sequence to ignite the spaceplane’s engine is not complete. As a result, the rocket motor failed to fire, and the two pilots on board allowed the vehicle to glide safely back to a New Mexico runway instead of soaring above the atmosphere.
This flight came almost exactly two years after the company’s first successful suborbital flight in December 2018 and 22 months since its second suborbital flight in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has relocated its operations from California to New Mexico, adding the interior of SpaceShipTwo‘s cabin for passenger flights and promising shareholders, it would soon start commercial flights and increase its cadence of operations.
Prior to Saturday’s flight attempt, Virgin Galactic’s stock had closed at $32.04 a share. When the New York Stock Exchange opened Monday, the stock fell about 15 percent, starting the day at $27.11. After the opening, it traded slightly higher.
The company had tried to allay investors’ fears with a press release issued Monday morning before the stock market opened. It billed the failure as a validation of the spacecraft’s safety engineering and said Virgin Galactic would return to the sky soon.
“As we do with every test flight, we evaluate all data, including the root cause assessment of the loss of computer communications,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in the release. “We look forward to sharing information about our next flight window in the near future.”
Prior to this weekend, the company had put in place a fairly rigorous schedule, which included another sub-orbital flight with four mission specialists flying in the SpaceShipTwo cabin to ensure it is ready for commercial operations. This would be followed by a final test flight, with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson on board in the first quarter of 2021. After this point, the company planned to start flying commercial missions with paying customers. It is not clear at this time how this schedule will be affected.
Although the slick renderings of the cabin interior show six seats, there are only four seats in the initial version of SpaceShipTwo† The vehicle is too heavy and does not have the capacity to carry six passengers in addition to the two pilots. It is possible that future versions of the spacecraft can handle six passengers, allowing the company to increase its revenue from each flight.
Saturday’s flight must also have proved a bitter disappointment for Spaceport America and the state of New Mexico where it is based. The state has invested more than $200 million to attract and retain Virgin Galactic and has waited nearly a decade for this first powered flight. It will now have to wait a while.