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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aborts test in its third human spaceflight attempt

The mission was the first flight from the company’s new home at Spaceport America in New Mexico

This photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows the company's SpaceShipTwo Unity attached to its mother ship, VMS Eve, at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. Saturday’s test was aborted without reaching space. (Virgin Galactic via AP) (AP)

Virgin Galactic aborted its third attempt to reach the edge of space on Saturday after the engine of its space plane ignited for about a second and then went out. The vehicle then glided back safely to the runway, and the pilots were reported to be in good health.

It was the first test from the company’s new home at Spaceport America, a taxpayer-funded, modern mirage of a building in the New Mexico desert from which the company hopes to routinely fly space tourists starting next year.

A successful flight would have brought the company, founded by Richard Branson in an effort to open space to the masses, a step closer to flying Branson himself to the edge of space, followed by the line of people who have paid as much as $250,000 for the chance to fly on a suborbital mission, see the Earth from space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.

On Twitter, the company said that 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's quest for space

Instead of operating a traditional rocket that launches vertically from a launchpad, Virgin Galactic takes a different approach. It flies a space plane, known as SpaceShipTwo, that is tethered to the belly of a twin fuselage mother ship. On Saturday, the pair took off from the runway at Spaceport America at about 8:24 a.m. Mountain time and flew to an altitude of some 40,000 feet. Then about 45 minutes later, the space ship was released, and the pilots ignited the rocket motor. There was a bright flash, but then it went out and the crew flew back down.

Two pilots were on board, Dave Mackay, a Scottish-born pilot who served in the Royal Air Force, and C.J. Sturckow, a retired Marine Corps colonel and NASA astronaut who flew four space shuttle missions.

Virgin Galactic first reached space almost two years ago to the day in a flight that marked the first human spaceflight from United States soil since the space shuttle retired in 2011. Then in February 2019 it reached space again with a crew member, Beth Moses, whose title is chief astronaut instructor, in addition to the two pilots.

The company doesn’t reach orbit, rather it flies straight up and down, hitting an altitude of more than 50 miles, the threshold of where space begins, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.