•  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

The Federal Aviation Administration put Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space under investigation for veering out of its designated airspace mid-flight. The FAA shared the information on Wednesday after a report from The New Yorker. According to the sources in The New Yorker the mission could not have happened, because during the flight two pilot’s were alerted to yellow and red light warnings which automatically meant to close the mission. Warnings were ignored, the flight continued and landed safely. 

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane launched on July 11th with the founder of the company Richard Branson and three company employees over the firm’s New Mexico spaceport, Spaceport America. The rocket-plane reached 53.5 miles high, scraping the edge of space for a few minutes and gliding back, using a rocket-propelled moment from its ascent. Passengers and the company read off the mission as a total success, with the company’s president Mike Moses telling reporters “the ship looked perfect” at touchdown.

The Verge writes in the original article that the flight wasn’t as pure as it was acclaimed. When the space plane was accelerating toward peak altitude, the two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, got warnings that the rocket was flying not as straight as it should have been. Such warnings “should scare the crap out of you,” Masucci was quoted by The New Yorker as saying in a 2015 meeting with other company pilots. That gave the pilots two options, per company procedures: “implement immediate corrective action, or abort the rocket motor,” the magazine reports. The smoothest and the most secure option was to drop the mission and return Branson and his crew to the ground without finishing the mission. Multiple sources told Nicholas Schmidle, the article’s author who also published an exhaustive book on Virgin Galactic’s history earlier this year.

This flight closed Branson’s aim to reach space. However, the initial plan was not like that. The mission moved up to the earlier date because Branson’s billionaire “colleague” Jeff Bezos announced he’d fly on his space company Blue Origin’s rocket in July. Virgin Galactic has said safety is its top priority and Branson has denied that Bezos’ rival jaunt to space played a role in his decision to launch sooner than planned.

A spokesperson from Virgin Galactic commented on the situation saying that the crew was never in any danger, the “change in trajectory” was caused by high-level winds and that the company disputes what it considers “misleading characterizations and conclusions” in the New Yorker story. “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures,” the spokesperson said. “Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico.”

“During its July 11, 2021 flight, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” a spokesperson for the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA investigation is ongoing.”

Virgin Galactic faced such a critical moment, not for the first time. The Verge writes that in 2014, during one of the test flights a disaster happened where one pilot died and the other one was severely injured. After that, Branson vowed to fly aboard the ship himself before flying paying customers, as a show of confidence in the vehicle’s safety. In another test flight in 2018, with Mackay and Masucci as pilots, SpaceShipTwo veered out of control, spinning and tumbling mid-air before the pilots regained stability and landed safely Schmidle reports. The cause was later found to be a manufacturing defect that took months to fix. After the plane flew again in 2019, engineers found significant damage to a crucial part of the plane, with a glue-like material ripped up and exposing a large gap, Schmidle wrote in his book.

Virgin Galactic’s next crewed mission, which will also be its first revenue-generating flight, is slated for late September carrying three members of the Italian Air Force. FAA investigations into unexpected flight events usually keep future missions from taking place until the agency’s inquiry is complete and any potential corrections are made by the company. But the FAA’s probe into the Unity 22 mission “has no impact on future test flights,” the Virgin Galactic spokesperson said.

0
0