Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Suffers In-flight Engine Abort, Lands at Spacport America

WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve takes off with SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America on Dec. 12, 2020. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity suffered an in-flight abort on Saturday after its hybrid fired for about one second before shutting down.

VSS Unity descended rapidly after the engine cut out followed by a trail of smoke and/or vented nitrous oxide. Pilots David MacKay and C.J. Sturkow glided back to a runway landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete. Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon,” Virgin Galactic tweeted.

VSS Unity was dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mother ship at 9:16 a.m. MST. The spacecraft was to have burned its rubber-nitrous oxide hybrid engine for 60 seconds to fly above 50 miles (80.4 km).

VSS Unity was carrying a load of NASA scientific and technical payloads. The flight was to have tested improved the vehicle’s improved flight control system and vertical stabilizers.

It was a disappointing return to flight VSS Unity, which has not flown under power in nearly 22 months. The company conducted suborbital flights on Dec. 13, 2018 and Feb. 22, 2019 from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The much advertised launch would have been Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital test from Spaceport America, where it plans to begin commercial space tourism flights sometime next year.

Virgin Galactic had planned two other powered flight tests after this one before beginning commercial service. That schedule has now been scrambled by today’s aborted launch attempt.

This story is developing. It will be updated when more information becomes available.