Bengaluru: Virgin Galactic’s crewed spaceflight with CEO Richard Branson this July is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration for veering out of its designated airspace mid-flight, the FAA said Wednesday, following a report in The New Yorker, which outlined troubles the flight experienced including warning lights that should have caused pilots to abort the mission.
According to the report, authored by Nicholas Schmidle, who recently published the book Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, the pilots saw yellow and red light warnings mid-flight. The first yellow warning went off when climbing up, indicating that the spacecraft’s nose cone was not angled properly and affecting the climbing. The issue escalated closer to peak altitude, and the alert turned to a red light, to which the safest option would have been to abort the mission, according to insiders quoted by The New Yorker.
But the mission continued and the two pilots also returned the crew of six unharmed to earth. Flight radar data revealed that during the course of the mission, the flight veered outside its designated airspace. The FAA confirmed in the report that the flight had “deviated from its air traffic control clearance” and that an “investigation is ongoing”.
The report also outlined the circumstances under which Virgin Galactic’s lead test pilot and flight-test director, Mark Stucky, left the company earlier this year. Stucky had reportedly raised concerns about “descoping timelines” and lack of transparency, which the author had published in his book.
After the publication of his book, Stucky was reportedly stripped of his flight duties, and a week after Branson’s flight, was fired from the company.
The warning alerts that went off during ascent were related to the trajectory that the vehicle taking, affecting the path known as the entry glide cone. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two is a spaceplane, that is air-launched from a carrier aircraft. It uses rocket motors to fly up, and after a few minutes of weightlessness, glides back down to earth landing on a runway.
The path the spaceplane can take to glide back to the surface is an imaginary cone within which the vehicle must begin its descent with enough energy. The alerts indicated that the pilots weren’t climbing steeply enough for optimal reentry, the report explained.
The ship’s trajectory also meant that it veered off course from within its designated flying airspace, mandated for each flight to prevent collisions with other air traffic.
In the report, author Schmidle describes a previous company meeting in 2015 with the pilots of the flight, Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, where a NASA astronaut told the pilots that yellow lights should be extremely alarming because “when it turns red it’s gonna be too late”.
In a statement to Reuters, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson acknowledged that the trajectory deviated and the flight dropped below the airspace altitude for 1 minute and 41 seconds, but that the ship had posed no danger to the public or the crew. The statement said that high altitude winds “changed the trajectory” of the vehicle and that the pilots ensured it was within mission parameters.
Virgin Galactic’s flights have encountered dangerous hurdles earlier. In 2014, a mid-flight explosion in test flight, attributed to human error, killed a pilot and severely injured another. Schmidle had also described in his book how the same pilots, Mackay and Masucci, were conducting a test flight in 2018 when they lost control of the vehicle and started to tumble.
Investigations later revealed that there had been manufacturing defects that required months of fixes. In 2019, another issue caused damage to the ship on a test flight with the same two pilots, prompting Virgin Galactic’s then vice-president of safety and test to tell Schmidle, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”
Mark Stucky had been the flight test director for multiple test flights, and had reportedly grown worried about being “overworked and understaffed”, and cutting down on timelines. Schmidle reports that he had been “particularly troubled” by the unwillingness of the two pilots to acknowledge human error in the test flights. He had reportedly emailed his team on multiple occasions raising concerns.
After Stucky’s criticism appeared in Schmidle’s book in May this year, he was excluded from key meetings and from spaceflight planning activities ahead of the 11 July flight. The report states that after a decade with the programme, Stucky had no responsibilities on Branson’s flight, and was fired over Zoom eight days later.
Virgin Galactic is scheduled to fly its next test flight in September, after the ongoing FAA investigations are likely concluded.