Spaceport's Failure to Launch: Not Feelin' the Burn

Virgin Galactic's latest propulsion problem

“SpaceShipTwo Unity attached to our mothership, VMS Eve, heads into the skies above New Mexico.” Source: Virgin Galactic

In June 2009, hundreds of New Mexico pooh-bahs gathered at a middle-of-nowhere spot in the Jornada del Muerto to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for what supporters claimed was a visionary economic-development project — one sure to boost the fortunes of a state long in need of jobs not linked to government or hydrocarbons. But as the Albuquerque Journal’s Rene Romo noted, a prominent guest wasn’t able to make it to the nascent Spaceport America:

The highlight of the … festivities was to be a flyover by WhiteKnightTwo, the twin-fuselage aircraft built for spaceport anchor tenant Virgin Galactic and designed as the workhorse of a suborbital space tourism business. But as the aircraft flew east over Catron County on its 10th experimental flight from a base in Mojave, Calif., a warning light flashed on and the pilot decided as a precaution to land in Phoenix.

Over a decade later, history has, sort of, repeated itself. On Saturday, the first powered flight Virgin Galactic attempted to launch from New Mexico “was cut short after the engine of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle ‘Unity’ did not fully ignite.” It was another embarrassing glitch in a seemingly endless series of setbacks for the company, which calls itself “the world’s first commercial spaceline.”

However bold the vision, Virgin Galactic’s performance have been wholly unimpressive. In 2004, founder Richard Branson, an inveterate entrepreneur known for flamboyant promotions and more than a few spectacular failures, predicted that he would be flying ticket-buying astronauts as early as 2007. Wowed by the sizzle of a born marketer, and ignoring the risk and gargantuan obstacles, New Mexico’s political establishment enthusiastically partnered with the U.K. billionaire, and dedicated hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to plan, construct, and operate Spaceport America.

A decade and a half later, the facility sits almost entirely empty. Virgin Galactic has yet to conduct a single powered test flight from the Land of Enchantment, much less send even one passenger on a suborbital adventure.

Saturday’s much-hyped attempt to finally get even a tiny return on New Mexico’s “investment” appears to have been aborted due to “a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor.” Easy fix? Perhaps. But propulsion has been a significant challenge for Virgin Galactic from the start.

Mankind’s home planet exerts a brutal gravity penalty on any vehicle seeking a journey to the stars. Even a suborbital trip — i.e., one that merely crosses the barrier separating the atmosphere from space, however one chooses to define it — requires a velocity of thousands of miles per hour.

Attaining that kind of speed involves precise chemistry, innovative engineering, and a lot of danger. And sometimes, when things go sideways, people die. Three employees of Scaled Composites, a Virgin Galactic contractor, were killed in 2007 when an experiment that “should have been uneventful” went wrong. (See image below.) A test of “nitrous oxide, the oxidizer that would be used for SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid … motor,” was conducted to “see how the nitrous flowed through the engine.” No ignition was planned, yet an explosion occurred almost immediately, and rather disturbingly, the reason for the blast remains unclear.

In 2014, after another seven years of not flying tourists, Virgin Galactic chose to switch “from a rubber-based solid fuel to a plastic-based fuel for the motor that’s designed to power its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.” There was “no single thing” that induced the decision, the company’s CEO said, but “better performance” was expected, due to a longer “burn duration.”

Less than a year and a half later, Virgin Galactic switched its switch, returning to “the rubber/nitrous oxide engine they previously abandoned.” But the flip-flop proved unable to get SpaceShipTwo into what the international community regards as “space.” In late 2018, the company moved the celestial goalpost, making its “major milestone” not the Kármán line’s mark of 62 miles, but the “altitude at which NASA and Air Force folks get their astronaut wings, which is 50 miles.”

Might it have had no choice? SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine — “RocketMotorTwo” — is an unconventional propulsion system, and regardless of fuel type, perhaps it wasn’t up to the task. Rockets have traditionally been either solid- or liquid-fueled, and using a combination of the two introduces another element of uncertainty into an already risky enterprise.

Earlier this year, in its first annual report after going public, Virgin Galactic touted the many features of its propulsion system:

RocketMotorTwo has been designed to provide performance capabilities necessary for spaceflight with a focus on safety, reliability and economy. Its design incorporates comprehensive critical safety features, including the ability to be safely shut down at any time, and its limited number of moving parts increases reliability and robustness for human spaceflight. Furthermore, the motor is made from a benign substance that needs no special or hazardous storage.

Saturday morning, RocketMotorTwo couldn’t get the job done. In the days (if not week, if not months) to come, perhaps we will learn why.

Either way, look for New Mexico’s politicians to keep hope alive. Democratic and Republican elected officials have grown accustomed to apologizing for Branson’s blunders and schedule slips. (See tweet below.)

Aerospace experts bring a more cynical perspective to the fizzled test flight. As one online wag put it: “It’s Virgin Galactic, so I guess we’re lucky that they didn’t kill anyone this time.”

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