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Virgin Galactic’s test flight of space tourism craft fails to reach space

Virgin Galactic’s first crewed test flight of its SpaceShipTwo Unity craft from Spaceport America in New Mexico has failed to reach the boundary of space. The test flight, which took place on Saturday, December 13, was intended to be a test of the vehicle that will eventually carry the first space tourists on sub-orbital space flights.

The craft was carried to altitude by the carrier WhiteKnightTwo and was released as planned. Then, witnesses report that the SpaceShipTwo Unity’s engines fired for just a second before shutting off. Fortunately, the pilots were able to keep control of the vehicle and land it safely, and no one was injured. Video of the test was captured by NASASpaceflight.

“The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete,” the company confirmed on Twitter. It went on to say, “Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon.”

Virgin Galactic later said that it would be performing an evaluation of data from the test flight and looking for the cause of the issue, which was related to computer communication loss.

In a follow-up statement on Twitter, company CEO Michael Colglazier said, “Our flight today did not reach space as we had been planning. 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.” He also praised its pilots for landing the vehicle perfectly under the difficult circumstances.

The safety systems on the plane include a system designed to let pilots glide the plane back to land safely in the event of an engine issue such as this. This allowed pilots Dave Mackay and C.J. Sturckow to land even without apparent engine power.

Problems like this are a part of testing, but it remains to be seen how risk-tolerant private space tourists will be toward this kind of issue. Hundreds of customers have paid for flights on Virgin Galactic flights already, but there has been a series of delays in testing and rolling out of the space tourism service due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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