Billionaire mogul Richard Branson’s Long Beach-based Virgin Orbit Monday fell short in a crucial two-stage test of an orbital rocket system that could one day launch small satellites into space.
The mission ended shortly after the company’s LauncherOne rocket was released from “Cosmic Girl” — a Boeing Co. 747 plane that took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 11:56 a.m. — in a system that Virgin Orbit has designed to rival that of Elon Musk’s SpaceX for satellite launches.
About an hour into the flight, the plane performed a “clean release” of the rocket, but three minutes later the company declared the mission was over.
“We’ve confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight,” a tweet from Virgin Orbit stated. “Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base.”
Musk sent his condolences via Twitter.
“Orbit is hard,” he wrote. “Took us four attempts with Falcon 1.”
Virgin Orbit has conducted than 20 previous tests, but this was meant to be the first ignition for LauncherOne in what company officials called “the apex of a five-year-long development program.”
The company’s goal is to use the system to launch small satellites into space, competing with ground-based launches.
Virgin Orbit officials said maiden flights by government and commercial providers typically fail about half the time. The company was still able to collect data to help in their future efforts.
“LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree,” the company posted on Twitter. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected.”
Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the team performed admirably and will be ready to try again soon, with preparations already underway at the company’s Long Beach manufacturing facility.
“We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked” Hart said. “Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting.”