Virgin Orbit has a unique launch capability, but it’s come at a high price

The slim white, red, and black rocket dropped into the blue sky for the first time in late May. For a few, tantalizing seconds, all appeared well as the booster cleared the 747 carrier aircraft, and ignited its NewtonThree engine.

The engine burned brightly in the thin atmosphere, but it was not to last. The line feeding liquid oxygen into the rocket engine breached and, without a supply of oxidizer, the kerosene fuel would not burn. As the engine starved, the rocket was lost—and so were Virgin Orbit’s hopes of reaching orbit on its first try out.

In the wake of this letdown, company officials were upbeat, promising to move swiftly toward another launch attempt. “We took a big step forward today,” said Dan Hart, the chief executive of Virgin Orbit, hours after the rocket tumbled into the Pacific Ocean.

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