June 1, 2023

The FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s spaceship after flight deviation

The FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s spaceship after flight deviation
The FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s spaceship after flight deviationThe FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s spaceship after flight deviation
Images from the flight of VSS Unity.
Enlarge / VSS Unity burns its rocket motor on July 11, 2021.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday said it has grounded Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle until the agency completes an investigation into the vehicle’s flight outside its designated air space.

“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,” the aviation agency said in a statement.

The statement follows a report on Wednesday that the spacecraft, carrying Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and three other passengers, flew outside of its designated airspace over New Mexico for 1 minute and 42 seconds on July 11.

During that flight, a red light appeared on a console of the spacecraft, alerting the crew to an “entry glide-cone warning.” Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci faced a split-second decision: kill the rocket motor or take immediate action to address their trajectory problem. The pilots chose to continue the engine burn and corrected the trajectory error. But in doing so, they flew outside of their designated air space, which had been cleared for the safety of other aircraft and people on the ground.

In the weeks after the flight, Virgin Galactic and Branson basked in their success and the implication that he had beaten Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin to space. But the report put a damper on those celebrations, and Virgin Galactic shot back by issuing a statement on Wednesday afternoon. It read, in part:

Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols. When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures.

But not everyone agreed with Virgin Galactic’s characterization of the events. After the company’s statement, former Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky said the following on Twitter: “The most misleading statement today was Virgin Galactic’s. 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, and entered Class A airspace without authorization.”

Implications for next flight

On Thursday morning, only hours before the FAA said it was grounding SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic announced plans for its next flight. The company said its Unity 23 mission would carry three paying crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council. In its news release, Virgin Galactic said it was targeting a flight window in late September or early October 2021, pending technical checks and weather. It made no mention of the FAA issue.

However, after the FAA’s announcement, Virgin Galactic issued an updated statement:

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. We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions… We have been working closely with the FAA to support a thorough review and timely resolution of this issue.

What this all means for the actual launch of the Unity 23 mission has yet to be decided.