SpaceX is about to make history on Wednesday but Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit was out to remind people it isn’t the only game in town. It almost made a first, at least for the company, when it ignited and launched a rocket in the air. And while that didn’t exactly end well, the company is actually looking forward to seeing the data to make sure it won’t happen again when it makes a second attempt at igniting a liquid-fueled rocket mid-air.
Musk’s SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Branson’s Virgin companies have different goals when it comes to carrying humans and things into space. While Virgin Galactic has a broader set of goals, Virgin Orbit is focused on providing launch services for small satellites. To make that more economical, however, the company is eschewing traditional ground-based rocket launches for one that takes place already in the air.
That was what this historical test was for. Strapped to the left wing of a customized Boeing 747 nicknamed “Cosmic Girl”, the LauncherOne rocket would be released and then ignite its first phase booster engine, the NewtonThree. In an ideal situation, the rocket would travel through the atmosphere before the stage two NewtonFour rocket ignites to take the actual payload further into space.
The LauncherOne did release cleanly and ignite safely, which was already quite an accomplishment and a first for Virgin Orbit. Unfortunately, a still-unknown anomaly occurred afterward, forcing the company to safely terminate the mission. The Cosmic Girl aircraft and all its crew landed safely back to the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Virgin Orbit was never that optimistic about its chances of success to begin with and even Elon Musk offered his sympathies at how difficult getting to orbit is. The company is already in the process of finding out what went wrong in order to ensure its next rocket, LauncherTwo won’t suffer the same fate.