The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into Virgin Galactic’s much-hyped flight to the edge of space with billionaire founder Richard Branson aboard. 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 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. The FAA confirmed in a statement to CNET that “during its July 11, 2021 flight, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its air traffic control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America. The FAA investigation is ongoing.”
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 did not 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 the magnate initially 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.
As the FAA’s investigation continues, Virgin Galactic is pressing forward toward its goal of eventually launching thousands of paying customers per year. Its next test flight will carry members of the Italian Air Force and could 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.”
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