Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company of Briton Richard Branson, is she on the wrong track? Two months after the ship Unity has gone to the frontiers of space, the company must leave its fleet on the ground due to the revelation of serious incidents during the flight.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Thursday, September 2, to investigate a deviation from the course that occurred during this highly publicized event of July 11, which was supposed to be a major blow to the entry of Virgin Galactic into the era of space tourism.
Richard Branson was then the first billionaire to go to space aboard the ship of a private company – which he himself created -, ahead of his rival Jeff Bezos, the boss of Amazon, by a few days. But if Virgin Galactic had assured at the time that everything had gone as planned, Unity actually flew briefly outside mission airspace.
“Virgin Galactic will not be able to fly its ship in the air [de catégorie] SpaceShipTwo before the FAA approves the final investigation report or determines that the issues related to the incident do not affect public safety ”, the US agency said in a statement sent to Agence France-Presse (AFP). « [Unity] deviated from his air traffic control clearance by returning to Spaceport America ”, the base used by the company in the New Mexico desert, she explained.
Virgin Galactic reacted by ensuring “Work in partnership with the FAA to review the short period during which the vessel fell below the permissible altitude”. The company said it took the problem ” seriously “ and seek to determine “How to prevent this from happening again in future missions”.
Warning lights on
The Virgin Galactic ship is not a “standard” rocket taking off vertically. The company uses a huge carrier plane, which takes off from a conventional runway, then drops a SpaceShipTwo aloft (in this case Unity), looking like a big private jet. This then ignites its engine until it exceeds 80 km in altitude – the limit of space according to the American army -, then descends while hovering. When the vessel is at a very high altitude, passengers can detach themselves and evolve for a few minutes in zero gravity.
The FAA’s announcement comes after the publication on Wednesday of an article in the New Yorker revealing that security alerts were activated in the ship’s cockpit during the flight, synonymous with a serious problem that could have resulted in a fatal outcome. The trajectory problem threatened to compromise the return phase to Earth, when the spacecraft hovered until it landed on a runway, according to the newspaper. Quoting anonymous sources within Virgin Galactic, he clarified that the safest way to react to these alerts would have been to interrupt the mission.
But Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, the two pilots who were on board, decided to continue the flight, in spite of these sightings; the landing finally went off without a hitch. The vessel also carried, in addition to Richard Branson and the two pilots, three other passengers employed by the company.
Prestigious guests – including the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk – as well as all the press had been invited to the event, broadcast live on the Internet.
Mission accomplished according to Virgin Galactic
In a statement ahead of the FAA’s announcement, Virgin Galactic disputed the findings of the New Yorker. “When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds, which altered the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored [celle-ci] to make sure she stays[ait] within the scope of the mission, detailed the company. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions. “
Neither the public nor the crew were endangered, maintains Virgin Galactic, continuing to call the mission a “Successful”. “Although the final path deviated from our original plan, it was an intentional and controlled flight path”, she assured.
This ban on flying until further notice is a blow to Virgin Galactic, which had just confirm, Thursday, the holding of a new test flight “At the end of September or the beginning of October”. This flight was to be devoted to scientific research, in partnership with the Aeronautica Militare (the Italian air force).
The group’s stock fell suddenly after the FAA’s announcement, and lost about 3% when the market closed on Thursday.