During the historic spaceflight of Sir Richard Branson in July, near the end of the burn of the VSS Unity spacecraft’s engine, a red light appeared on a console. This alerted the crew to an “entry glide-cone warning.” Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci faced a split-second decision: kill the rocket motor or take immediate action to address their trajectory problem.
This scenario is outlined in a new report by Nicholas Schmidle, a writer with more insight into Virgin Galactic than any other journalist, in The New Yorker. For his recently published book Test Gods, Schmidle had unparalleled access to Virgin Galactic and its pilots.
“I once sat in on a meeting, in 2015, during which the pilots on the July 11th mission and others discussed procedures for responding to an entry glide-cone warning,” Schmidle wrote in his story, published Wednesday. “C. J. Sturckow, a former marine and NASA astronaut, said that a yellow light should ‘scare the sh– out of you,’ because ‘when it turns red it’s gonna be too late.'”
As they accelerated to Mach 3 in July, the pilots knew that, if they cut the motor, VSS Unity would not climb above 80 km and the founder of Virgin Galactic, Branson, would not beat Jeff Bezos to space. Cutting the motor would be an embarrassment for the company and its founder. They did not abort; instead, they attempted to get the vehicle back on a safe upward trajectory so that it would be in position to safely glide back to the runway in New Mexico.
The pilots succeeded, and Branson’s flight landed safely. However, in doing so, Unity flew outside of its designated airspace for 1 minute 42 seconds. That may not sound like much time, but it’s more than 10 percent of its flight after being dropped from a carrier aircraft. A Virgin Galactic spokesperson acknowledged that the company did not initially notify the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the deviation, Schmidle reports.
The troubles during Branson’s flight come as Virgin Galactic is attempting to prepare the spacecraft for its next flight, carrying several members of the Italian Air Force, later this month. It is not clear to what extent the FAA investigation might affect that timeline.
The difficulties also highlight the analog nature of VSS Unity‘s spaceflight, which relies heavily on the skill of its pilots, as opposed to the automated launch and control systems of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle or SpaceX’s orbital Crew Dragon capsule. The publicly traded company has told investors it plans to conduct more than 100 flights a year to become profitable.
Virgin Galactic officials told Schmidle that the firm’s top priority is the safety of its crew and passengers.
As part of his new report, Schmidle also notes that the principal source for his book Test Gods, Virgin Galactic’s lead test pilot and flight-test director Mark “Forger” Stucky, was stripped of his flight duties after the book’s publication in May. Stucky played no role in planning for Branson’s July 11 flight.
“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,” Schmidle reports. “Eight days after Branson’s flight, an H.R. manager booked time on his calendar, and then fired Stucky over Zoom.”
Update: After publication of this story Virgin Galactic issued the following statement:
“We dispute the misleading characterizations and conclusions in the New Yorker article published today.”
“The safety of our crew and passengers is Virgin Galactic’s top priority. 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.
“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.
“The Unity 22 flight further reaffirmed our technical readiness, our rigorous pilot training program and the inherent safety of our spaceflight system, particularly in light of the changing flight conditions. As we move towards commercial service, we are confident we have the right safety culture, policies and processes in place to build and operate a safe and successful business over the long term.”
Statement on the FAA:
“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.”