Billionaire Grounded

Billionaire Grounded

Virgin Galactic must keep its spaceplanes on the ground until the Federal Aviation Administration completes an investigation into a problem that occurred during Richard Branson’s historic flight to the edge of space in July.

The FAA’s statement, reported by Reuters, was clear, concise, and not altogether surprising.

“Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety.”

Oof.

The grounding of Virgin Galactic’s two SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes comes a day after the New Yorker published an alarming article detailing problems that occurred on the July 11 flight that took billionaire founder Branson, along with three other passengers and two pilots, to an altitude of 53 miles (86 km) above sea level, which kinda sorta qualifies as “space.”

The grounding of SpaceShipTwo means a scheduled flight for later this month, in which VSS Unity was supposed to deliver members of the Italian Air Force to suborbital space, probably won’t happen. The grounding also strips away much of the lustre surrounding Virgin Galactic’s space tourism offering, which is set to charge $US450,000 ($607,950) per seat.

VSS Unity during the engine burn stage of the mission on July 11, 2021.  (Image: Virgin Galactic) VSS Unity during the engine burn stage of the mission on July 11, 2021. (Image: Virgin Galactic)

Indeed, the Unity 22 flight, as far as we knew until now, seemed to go exactly as planned, but as the New Yorker article reveals, pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci ignored warning lights during the ascent. Specifically, the pilots brushed off an “entry glide cone warning,” which indicated that VSS Unity wasn’t climbing steeply enough and that the spaceplane wouldn’t have enough energy to glide back to the designated runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

And by flying outside of this cone-shaped volume of space, the spaceplane strayed beyond the mandated airspace for the mission, which it did for 1 minute and 41 seconds. This is a big no-no for the FAA, who enforces these rules.

The New Yorker article suggests the pilots should’ve aborted the mission when the warning lights came on. The warning should’ve served like the discouraging Monopoly card: Go directly to runway jail, do not pass into orbital space, and do not collect $US200 ($270). Had the pilots done that, however, Richard Branson would probably not have been the first billionaire to reach space — especially given that Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos achieved the same feat just a few weeks later. Instead of aborting the mission, however, the pilots allowed VSS Unity’s engines to go at full throttle for the required one full minute.

I reached out to Virgin Galactic to get the company’s take on the matter and the ongoing FAA investigation.

“As we have previously stated, we are working in partnership with the FAA to address the short time that the spaceship dropped below its permitted altitude during the Unity 22 flight,” explained a company spokesperson in an email. “We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions.”

The spokesperson admits that the flight trajectory didn’t go according to plan, yet a “controlled and intentional flight path” is what allowed VSS Unity to reach space and land at the company’s spaceport in New Mexico.

“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centres or cause a hazard to the public,” the spokesperson said, adding that FAA reps were “present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs.”

In an email sent to Gizmodo yesterday, Virgin Galactic claimed that high winds were responsible for the change in trajectory and that the “pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.”

Mark Stucky, former flight test director for Virgin Galactic, claims this is balderdash. The “facts are the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within limits, they did nothing of substance to address the trajectory error, & entered Class A airspace without authorization,” as he tweeted on September 1. Stucky was fired shortly after the Unity 22 mission after publicly expressing concerns over Virgin Galactic’s safety practices.

And now we eagerly await the results of the FAA investigation. But I have to think, the FAA is probably not loving that the pilots blew past the warning lights and as a result wantonly ventured out of mandated airspace. That Virgin Galactic is taking paying customers to the edge of space will also likely factor into the FAA probe. As for the future of this space tourism offering, this incident, the ensuing investigation, and claims of a deteriorating safety culture at Virgin Galactic mean paying customers might want to think twice about taking a ride on a Richard Branson-built spaceship.