Sir Richard Branson’s rocket company Virgin Orbit was forced to abandon its maiden attempt to launch a rocket into space on Monday, a setback for the British billionaire’s space ambitions.
The company blamed an “anomaly” after terminating the planned launch of the rocket from a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet off the California coast.
Virgin Orbit, which plans to cut the cost of small satellite launches by firing them into space from a moving jet at 35,000 feet, said it had successfully dropped and ignited the rocket, but was forced to abort after that, meaning the rocket did not travel into orbit as planned.
The plane and its crew returned to the ground safely after the mission was terminated and the company did not say precisely what had gone wrong.
Monday’s launch was due to be the culmination of years of work on Virgin Orbit, which was separated from Sir Richard’s other space venture Virgin Galactic in 2017. “LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree,” the company said. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight.”
It said it had gathered valuable data, and was preparing for a second flight. Many maiden flights are not completely successful. “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,” Virgin Orbit’s chief executive Dan Hart said.
LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree. An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) May 25, 2020
The company said its second rocket was almost ready to be tested. Eventually, it says such launches will be cheaper than a regular satellite launch because they do not need a pad to launch vertically from.
The failure is something of a setback to Sir Richard, who is selling down his stake in space tourism company Virgin Galactic in order to prop up his ailing travel businesses including his crisis-hit airline Virgin Atlantic.
SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk gave the company some encouragement after the mission was abandoned, writing: “Sorry to hear that. Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with [SpaceX’s first rocket] Falcon 1.”