Series of test flights of VSS Unity deployed from WhiteKnightTwo has resulted with two scrubbed missions – Virgin Galactic has not easy return to flying.
It was second flight of VSS Unity and first one after disaster of VSS Enterprise on 31 October 2014. First flight was important event and beginning of whole series of glide flights campaign planned for 2016 and 2017, which should ended with resuming engine flights. Due the unofficial statement given on October 31, 2016 by one of the Virgin Galactic pilots, CJ Sturckow, public opinion knew date of the first flight of Virgin Galactic spaceplane: November 1.
Flight was performed according to previous information on November 1 2016. Mission of WhiteKnightTwo with VSS Unity remaining under the central wing started at Mojave Air and Space Port. WhiteKnightTwo lifted off at 15:35 GMT and started to increase altitude to reach designated distance from the ground necessary for deploying VSS Unity. Unfortunately due the strong winds mission was halted and scrubbed one hour after start, at 16:39 GMT. Both vehicles landed without any damage or problems at Mojave airfield. Next flight attempt was planned for November 3, 2016. Traditionally WhiteKnightTwo started from Mojave Air and Space Port and repeat procedure of ascend. Officially according to Virgin Galactic, weather was perfect for flight and WhiteKnightTwo started with VSS Unity should release locks and return separately to airfield later. In the same time Unity without installed rocket propulsion and empty fuel tanks should start to glide flight toward the airfield, perform maneuver identical as during engine flight and land. At 16:36 GMT WhiteKnightTwo and VSS Unity were finishing ascend maneuver; separation should be conducted as it was planned at 16:46 GMT. Unfortunately at 16:50 GMT Company announced on official Twitter profile, that mission is scrubbed again and WhiteKnightTwo will land with VSS Unity at Mojave airfield. Reasons for cancelling test flight were not precisely described, but according to official statement, engineers from ground control center spotted something, what was required to be checked on the ground. To avoid any unnecessary risk it was decided to return without separation and change date of the first separation and solo flight of VSS Unity.
First two flights seems not to be extremely lucky for Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, but return to flights after lasting two years break could not be easy. Schedule should be kept but not for every price, especially when manned flights are considered. This simple fact was discovered recently by SpaceX which returned to flights of their Falcon-9 launch vehicle after disaster 2015. Falcon-9 suffered again for problems, what resulted in loss of rocket and Amos-6 satellite after explosion at launch pad on September 1, 2016.