Alarming new details are emerging about the historic Virgin Galactic flight that took billionaire Richard Branson to the edge of space.
Reporter Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker has written a scathing article about the July 11 launch that took billionaire Richard Branson to space. The flight, it would appear, did not go according to plan, as the VSS Unity spaceplane veered off course during its ascent. In addition to flying in unsanctioned airspace, the spaceplane failed to reach its intended trajectory, which risked a hazardous descent and landing.
Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci were aware of the problem, as multiple warning lights illuminated their console, according to the report. Schmidle says his intel came from eight unnamed individuals who are “knowledgeable about the program.”
Despite the problems, VSS Unity, with Branson and three other passengers onboard, made it to an altitude of 53 miles (86 km), allowing for four minutes of weightlessness. The pilots then landed the vehicle at Spaceport America in New Mexico. But the incident is raising important questions about the safety of Virgin Galactic’s space tourist offering, which now costs $450,000 per seat. It’s also raising questions about an apparently questionable safety culture at the company, founded by Richard Branson.
In an emailed statement, Virgin Galactic said it disputes the “misleading characterizations and conclusions” in the New Yorker article.
According to Schmidle’s sources, a yellow caution light came on about one minute into VSS Unity’s powered flight, as the space plane flew 20 miles (32 km) above the New Mexico desert. The yellow light was a “warning to the pilots that their flight path was too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical,” wrote Schmidle. “If they didn’t fix it, they risked a perilous emergency landing in the desert on their descent.”
And then the warning light turned red at the very tail-end of the one-minute engine burn. The red light was an “entry glide cone warning,” which Schmidle described as a “big deal.” Like the now-retired Space Shuttle, Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane must glide back to Earth and land on the surface (unlike the shuttle, however, the spaceplane is brought to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a mothership, in this case WhiteKnightTwo). During the ascent on July 11, VSS Unity wasn’t flying steeply enough for it to have the required glide energy to reach its intended destination. During a pilots’ meeting in 2015, Masucci said this red warning light “should scare the crap out of you,” as the New Yorker reports.
The ship was flying at the wrong angle, which also meant it flew outside of its cone, and by virtue of this, outside of the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandated airspace for the mission. That’s not good, as the ship could’ve entered the path of another aircraft. Schmidle says Virgin Galactic didn’t immediately notify the FAA of its indiscretion, but the agency eventually picked up on what happened. The FAA is claiming that VSS Unity spent nearly two minutes outside of its mandated airspace and that an investigation into the Unity 22 mission is now underway, the New Yorker reports.
Multiple sources from Virgin Galactic told Schmidle that “the safest way to respond to the warning [lights] would have been to abort,” but a company spokesperson “disputed this contention.” An abort would’ve required the pilots to shut down the engines and return to Earth prior to reaching space. Had they done this, Branson would not have been the first billionaire to reach space. (Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos was preparing to do the same later the same month).
“The safety of our crew and passengers is Virgin Galactic’s top priority,” Virgin Galactic says in its statement. “Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system, our test flight program and our rigorous pilot training protocol.”
Here’s how Virgin Galactic characterized the flight:
“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. 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. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”
And here’s what the company said about the FAA investigation:
“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, the Unity 22 flight did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace. As a result of the trajectory adjustment, 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 re-entering restricted airspace that is protected all the way to the ground for Virgin Galactic missions. At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs. We are working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”
Virgin Galactic says it’s confident it has “the right safety culture, policies and processes in place to build and operate a safe and successful business over the long term.” The company’s track record, with its history of tragedy and near-misses, suggests otherwise.
During flight tests of the system in 2014, an “in-flight anomaly” resulted in one pilot being killed and another injured. In his New Yorker article, Schmidle recounts other close-calls, including serious incidents in 2018 and 2019, both of which could’ve ended in disaster. He also describes how Todd Ericson, Virgin Galactic’s former vice-president of safety and testing, would go on to resign from his position due to the company’s disappointing safety culture. Problematically, Mark Stucky was fired from his position as flight test director after the July 11 flight after publicly expressing concerns over the company’s safety practices. The departure of Ericson and Stucky “leaves the company without important internal voices for accountability,” writes Schmidle.
You should definitely read Schmidle’s entire report, as he paints a very grim picture of the current state of things at Virgin Galactic.
This is all very interesting stage-setting for the next Virgin Galactic launch, scheduled for later this month or early October. The launch will include several members of the Italian Air Force, as well as experiments to test the “transitional” effects of microgravity on the human body. After the Unity 23 mission, Virgin Galactic will stop all flights to perform maintenance work on WhiteKnightTwo and put new space planes through tests.