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Virgin Orbit’s Mission Failure: Similar to SpaceX’s Beginnings 12 Years Ago

The Virgin Group’s Virgin Orbit planned an orbital launch with its LauncherOne rocket, the very first expedition for this latest two-stage spacecraft. A Boeing 747, named Cosmic Girl, would have the rocket attached to its underside. Once in flight, it would then release the rocket and move out of orbit.

However, this wasn’t how it went down. The procedures before the launch were completed successfully. The first item on the agenda was the take-off from Mojave Air and Space Port, after which the Boeing aircraft arrived at the Pacific Ocean. Next, a telemetry lock from several dishes was done and a “terminal count, and a clean release” was also completed. Cosmic Girl launched the rocket, which even ignited its own engine as it was taking off. But at that point, an error occurred, causing the flight to be aborted. All of this was explained in a press release from Virgin Orbit.

The company also updated its Twitter followers about the mission. In response, Elon Musk tweeted an inspiring message, “Sorry to hear that. Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with Falcon 1.” The fourth attempt happened in 2008, when Falcon 1 successfully took off into orbit, becoming the first orbit-class liquid-fuel rocket launched by a private company.

Another area of expertise for SpaceX is in reusing rockets. It first tried to reuse Falcon 9 in 2013 and after several failed attempts, it finally managed to save the rocket the following year. Three years later, the company was able to save 15 rockets in a year, with all of the launches recorded in video. So far, 35 of its flights happened with reused rockets. This allowed it to cut much of the costs it incurs (a key element of Elon Musk economics).

Despite the last-minute anomaly, Virgin Orbit managed to accomplish something extraordinary. No orbital-class horizontal-flying vehicle fueled by liquid ever managed to ignite its own engine before, and definitely not in the very first attempt. Not only is this an advancement for the company, it’s also a breakthrough in the aerospace field.

As Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement, this is another step forward for the company and an opportunity to review and improve its current technology. He commended the team for completing the pre-launch and the flight with “incredible skill.” Moreover, test flights like this one allow the company to gather and analyze important data. “Our engineers are already poring through the data,” he said, also indicating that a next flight launch is underway.

And much of the preparation for this launch is already done. Virgin Orbit is manufacturing the next few rockets in Long Beach, eager to accomplish the goals that it has set for itself and hoping that the next blastoff would be successful.

Although the failure occurred because of a technical issue, such problems may not be the worst of its concerns. With the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown imposition, the firm’s parent company, the Virgin Group, has had to take drastic measures to ensure that its business operations continue. To facilitate the travel business, Richard Branson announced that he would be selling a fifth of his company Virgin Galactic’s shares, thereby raising $500 million in funds. We definitely wouldn’t want LauncherOne’s journey to end here.

The Muskette
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