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EXPLAINED: How Virgin Space Plane Went Off Course And Why It May Derail Richard Branson's Plans

By: Kenneth Mohanty


Last Updated: September 03, 2021, 11:47 IST

British billionaire had flown to suborbital space on board the Virgin Galactic July 11 flight that is now under the scanner

British billionaire had flown to suborbital space on board the Virgin Galactic July 11 flight that is now under the scanner

US aviation watchdog FAA has said Virgin Galactic may not carry out any space launches till it finds out what went wrong with trajectory of its July 11 flight

He managed to pip fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to the edge of space, but in doing so Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic may have fallen foul of strict aviation guidelines that ensure the safety of space missions. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded the vessel that had taken Branson and crew to the imaginary line above Earth where space begins pending an investigation into whether it violated critical parameters. Here’s what we know.

Why Has The Virgin Galactic Plane Been Grounded?

According to a report by Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker, about a minute into the July 11 flight that had taken off from the desert in New Mexico, the on-board systems showed that the flight was veering off course and faced a risky emergency landing unless the issue was fixed. While the expert pilots in the cockpit of SpaceShipTwo Unity, as the Virgin Galactic vessel is called, chose not to abort the mission and would go on to complete the flight and bring the crew of six flyers safely back to Earth, FAA seems to have taken a serious view of the matter.

“The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety," the US aviation watchdog said without revealeing further details.


What Does It Mean?

Spaceflight at the best of times is a risky enterprise and very close attention is paid to tghe need for minimising the risk of casualty. So much so that the trajectory and flight path of every mission is delineated down to the last detail with a view to ensuring that, if something goes wrong, the danger to the public on the ground is as little as possible. Any deviation from the set flight path, therefore, raises red flags, and that is what is reported to have happened with the Virgin Galactic flight.

The New Yorker report said the warning lights that came on in the cockpit during the flight with Branson on board pointed at a flight path that was “too shallow" while the “nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical". Unless the issue was addressed it could have posed trouble with its trajectory. The article said that the company manual required the pilots to abort the flight, but they went ahead nonetheless, a view that Virgin Galactic has rejected.

Reacting to the report, it said that “our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures", according to news agency AFP. As to the “changing flight conditions", the company told AFP that “the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory". But it maintained that “the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters" even as it said that it rejects “misleading characterisations and conclusions in the New Yorker article".

How Safe Is The Virgin Galactic Space Plane System?

It transpires that the issue with the deviation from the flight path is related mainly to the risk assessment for people on the ground in the area over which a mission’s proposed trajectory is supposed to lie. The report said that not only did the incorrect flight of the Virgin Galactic flight have the potential to jeopardise the mission, by veering outside its demarcated air space — the corridor, if you will, within which the flight was to operate — it also posed a threat to any aircraft that may have been moving in the vicinity. In FAA space flight jargon, this related to the ‘expected casualty’ (Ec) calculations.

According to FAA, “expected casualty is used in the space transportation industry as a measure of risk to public safety from a specific mission, and is one of the factors typically used… to determine if a mission may proceed or a license may be granted". But what is Ec? FAA says it is “the expected average number of human casualties per commercial space mission". Human casualty is defined as “a fatality or serious injury".

But Virgin Galactic said that the July 11 flight posed no threats to anybody. BBC said it was told by the company that it was fully cooperating with the FAA, adding that a spokesperson stressed that “at no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centres or cause a hazard to the public".

The BBC, too, reported that the company acknowledged the deviation from the pre-determined flight path, but claimed it was always on top of things. “Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico," BBC quoted the spokesperson as saying.

What Are Virgin Galactic’s Upcoming Flights?

In the new space race to bring commercial flights closer to humans — it involves Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Virgin Galactic — the Branson model stands out in that it does not use conventional vertical take-off rockets that the other two use. Instead, what Virgin Galactic uses is a rocket-powered plane that takes off horizontally, carrying with a smaller plane with the space passengers on board. At a designated height, the mothership, as the larger carries is called, releases its payload, which then soars to the line where space begins, about 100km above Earth. After briefly touching suborbital space, the plane loops back to Earth and completes a conventional landing at the end of the trip, which lasts about an hour from take-off to touchdown.

The Blue Origin space trip that Bezos made along with three other fellow passengers on July 20 did not have any pilots; it was operated remotely from the mission control centre back on Earth. In contrast, the Virgin Galactic flight has two sets of pilots, one for the mothership and the other on the vessel that carries the space passengers, christened Unity.

On September 2, Virgin Galactic announced its “next rocket-powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity… which will be the first commercial, human-tended research mission for the company". It said that the flight will “carry three paying crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council" who will “evaluate and measure the effects of the transitional phase from gravity to microgravity on the human body", among other things. It said that the company was “targeting a flight window in late September or early October 2021, pending technical checks and weather". And, now, an FAA clearance pending the investigation.

But reports said that following the late September mission, the company has planned a long break to effect maintenance and upgrade requirements for its space flight system. The company was reportedly looking to launch full commercial space services by the end of 2022 with tickets said to be priced at $450,000 for one seat.

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first published:September 03, 2021, 11:47 IST
last updated:September 03, 2021, 11:47 IST