The Federal Aviation Administration says Virgin Galactic won’t be making another trip to the edge of space, for now.
The agency says the company’s VSS Unity rocket plane veered out of its designated airspace as it glided back down to Earth for a landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico on July 11. The much-hyped flight to the edge of space was the company’s first with a full crew, including billionaire founder Richard Branson, aboard.
The FAA confirmed in a statement to CNET on Thursday that during the flight, “the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its air traffic control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.”
A few hours later, the FAA announced it was grounding all the company’s SpaceShipTwo vehicles, including Unity, while the mishap investigation continues.
“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,” an agency spokesperson said via email.
The FAA typically will conduct a routine mishap investigation any time anything out of the ordinary happens during such a flight.
The issue with Unity’s descent was originally reported in the New Yorker by Nicholas Schmidle, author of the book Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut.
A statement from Virgin Galactic acknowledges that the “flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan… the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace that is protected for Virgin Galactic missions for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before reentering restricted airspace that is protected all the way to the ground for Virgin Galactic missions.”
In other words, the company says it was out of bounds vertically for a moment, but never laterally.
“When the vehicle encountered high-altitude winds which changed the trajectory… our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained,” the statement reads.
But Virgin Galactic’s former flight test director Mark “Forger” Stucky, who was watching the entire flight from Spaceport America on July 11, disputes the company’s account.
“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,” Stucky wrote on Twitter.
Stucky was an integral part of the Virgin Galactic team for more than a decade leading up to July’s flight, which was also set up as a major media event with hundreds of invited guests and reporters, including yours truly, in attendance. But some of Stucky’s criticisms of Virgin Galactic and its safety record were part of Schmidle’s book, which came out in May.
According to Schmidle, after the book came out, “Stucky was stripped of his flight duties and excluded from key planning meetings ahead of the July 11 event. He watched Branson’s flight from the runway; it was the first mission for which he had no responsibilities after more than a decade on the program. Eight days after Branson’s flight, an HR manager booked time on his calendar, and then fired Stucky over Zoom.”
Virgin Galactic didn’t respond to a request for comment specifically on Stucky’s criticisms. However, the company says it disputes “the misleading characterizations and conclusions” of Schmidle’s New Yorker article, which cites the former employee’s concerns about the culture and approach to safety within Virgin Galactic.
Accidents and safety concerns led to multiple delays for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space program, which Branson once hoped to initiate by 2010. A fatal test stand accident in 2007 and another mishap in 2014 that ended in a crash and the death of a Virgin Galactic test pilot pushed the program back by years.
Ultimately, though, Unity made it back to the ground safely on July 11, and the flight was widely hailed as a success.
The grounding of SpaceShip Two will likely disrupt the company’s upcoming flight plans. Its next test flight will carry members of the Italian Air Force and was scheduled to take off as soon as later this month.
In a statement issued Thursday morning, Virgin Galactic announced that the mission will be dubbed Unity 23 and marks its “first research customer mission,” as the passengers will be conducting scientific experiments in microgravity during the flight.
“The company is targeting a flight window in late September or early October 2021,” the statement reads, “pending technical checks and weather.”
Now Virgin Galactic will have to amend that statement to include a pending FAA investigation.
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