According to multiple news reports, the flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which carried company founder Richard Branson and four other passengers, was dangerously close to disaster, so close in fact that the FAA has grounded future flights effective immediately while it investigates the July 11th flight, the first by Virgin Galactic to carry passengers.
While Virgin Galactic denies that the occupants were in any danger during the flight, others, including the FAA, aren’t so sure about that.
In an email to Plane & Pilot strongly requesting that we change the headline of the story, a representative of the company wrote, “The headline, “Reports: Richard Branson Came Close to Dying On Virgin Galactic Space Flight, Everybody Else Onboard, Too,” is incorrect. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory. 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. Would you please update the headline to reflect this?”
We did indeed change the headline, but to reflect that Virgin Galactic objects to it. We did not report the news we refer to, but it is being reported by media outlets that specialize in space flight, including space.com, that the flight was at great risk due to the trajectory deviation.
So, what happened? During the flight, two warning lights came on, a yellow caution and a red warning light, both designed to alert the crew that the flight profile runs the risk of not allowing the spacecraft/glider to safely return to land. The safe envelope for that return glide is limited by two factors, the fact that the ship needs to make its descent at the proper angle in order to reenter the thicker atmosphere below its apogee and that, again, it’s a glider! That of course means that the pilots can’t pour the coals to it to compensate. And as for the company’s contention that the new path was intentional, well, that raises a host of issues, possibly including the flight’s intentional deviation from a clearance and its lack of an emergency declaration, both of which might have been required under the normal Federal Aviation Regulations.
The FAA’s gripe against Virgin Galactic is at least that it left the airspace it was cleared to fly into, which is an even bigger no-no for spacecraft than it is for aeroplanes. The deviation lasted more than a minute, and Virgin Galactic admits that much is true. Virgin Galactic has blamed the deviation from its clearance on higher-than-expected winds, and others are suggesting the craft missed the required angle of ascent by enough to put the outcome in jeopardy.
The optics behind the timing of the caution and warning lights coming on could not have been worse, as they illuminated shortly before the craft reached its peak, allowing the occupants to do that weightless thing that people are lining up to pay the big bucks for.
Instead of aborting the mission, however, the flight continued on as originally planned, something that the FAA will doubtless ask Virgin Galactic to explain.
Alien spacecraft? We explore more here—Mysteries of Flight: The Alien Spacecraft Of Roswell, New Mexico.