Virgin Orbit carried out their first flight this past weekend, and as most first launch attempts go for a new launch vehicle, it ended in a failure. But not without checking off a ton of items on the rundown:
For about 9 seconds after drop, the flight went perfectly. Through some of the most challenging portions of our flight — release, the controlled drop, the rocket’s ignition sequence, and the initial portion of guided, powered flight — every part of our system did exactly as we designed it to do. We have solid data from hundreds of channels and sensors — and in looking at those, we see performance that is well-matched to our predictions and to the extensive data we have from our models and ground tests.
At that point, as you can see in the video of the flight, the engine shut down for an as-of-yet-unknown reason. Some of the initial tweets in the moment made it sound like the flight was terminated—as in they commanded the rocket to be destroyed—but apparently that wasn’t true:
About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission. We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we’ve already begun. With the engine extinguished, the vehicle was no longer able to maintain controlled flight — but the rocket did not explode. It stayed within the predicted downrange corridors of our projections and our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license as the vehicle fell to the ocean, posing no risk to public safety, no danger our aircrew or aircraft, and no significant environmental impact.
As they go on to talk about in the blog post, they have an autonomous flight safety system on the vehicle, but they didn’t need to use it because the vehicle itself was maintaining its course in the “predicted downrange corridors ” all the way to the ocean surface.
I’m curious if that is specific to this launch and the clearances they had for it, or if that will be a feature of every LauncherOne flight (unless the specifics of a mission prevent it).
Whatever the case is, I hope Virgin Orbit finds and solves the issue quickly. They’ve got plenty of hardware in the barn, so we should see them back at it soon enough.
And above all, they should all be proud to have gotten to this point, with a fully-loaded vehicle dropping off their 747 and lighting its engine for the first time. Huge moment.