Pilots saw 'red light' warning during Virgin Galactic's historic spaceflight with Richard Branson: report

Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic founder, soars like Superman in weightlessness during the Unity 22 launch of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity July 11, 2021.
According to The New Yorker, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, became the first billionaire in space.

Branson was joined by four passengers on the Unity 22 mission. They flew to space aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Spaceplan VSS Unity. The flight was piloted and managed by veteran pilots Mike Masucci and Dave Mackay. WhiteKnightTwo, a carrier aircraft, lifted VSS Unity up to 50,000 feet (15,000m) and ignited its rocket engines. The craft then flew 53 miles (86km) above Earth's surface. Crew members experienced four minutes of weightlessness, before returning to Earth via unpowered glide flight.

VSS Unity's powered flight was just over one minute when a yellow warning light appeared on its console. It indicated that the craft was heading off-course. "The light was an indication to the pilots their flight path was too narrow and the nose was insufficiently straight," Nicholas Schmidle, New Yorker reporter states. They could have to make an emergency landing in the desert if they don't fix it.

According to the New Yorker, the report was based on interviews with eight unnamed Virgin Galactic executives who are "knowledgeable" about the program. Space.com reached out to Virgin Galactic for comment but they did not respond immediately.

Related: Virgin Galactic launches Richard Branson in 1st fully crewed Spaceflight

Photos: Virgin Galactic's first fully crewed spaceflight, with Richard Branson

A few seconds after the engine burn had ended, another warning light was displayed on the console. This time it was a red warning light that indicated an "entry glide warning". The cone-shaped trajectory that VSS Unity took to return to Earth during its glide flight is what the term refers too. According to Masucci, the red warning light "should scared the crap out" during a Virgin Galactic pilots meeting in 2015.

VSS Unity had not been descending at the right angle and had veered out of its mandated airspace. This put it at risk of an emergency landing, or even colliding with other aircraft. Virgin Galactic officials confirmed to The New Yorker that VSS Unity had indeed "deviated" from its Air Traffic Control clearance for 1 minute 41 seconds. An "investigation” is currently underway.

Multiple sources from the company indicated to The New Yorker that aborting the mission would have been the best option. The engines could be turned off and the engines returned to Earth. However, this would not have allowed the crew to reach the planned altitude. According to the report, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said that aborting the mission was not the best option. Space.com reached out to Virgin Galactic for comment but they did not respond immediately.

There was no abort and VSS Unity's skilled pilots were able safely transport the passengers to and fro in space. The space plane returned to Earth at Spaceport America in New Mexico with a smooth, space-ship-style landing.

VSS Unity lands after it completed its fourth flight into suborbital space on July 11, 2021. Virgin Galactic image credit

Although July's space flight marked the first SpaceShipTwo flight to carry a full crew, it was not the first SpaceShipTwo mission to experience dangerous technical issues. One pilot was killed and another injured in a 2014 test flight, and there have been at most two other close calls.

According to the New Yorker, Mackay and Masucci lost control during a July 2018 test flight when they flew through the Earth's atmosphere for the first time. They regained control, and they landed safely. However, Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker reported that a post-flight inspection revealed manufacturing defects that would require months of repair.

When Virgin Galactic's first passenger was onboard SpaceShipTwo in 2019 for a test flight, "the ship sustained substantial damage when a bond holding down the trailing edge the horizontal stabilizer came undone," The New Yorker stated. In 2020, Todd Ericson, then Vice-President of Safety at Virgin Galactic, stated that he didn't know how the vehicle was not lost and three people were killed. According to The New Yorker, Ericson quit his job at Virgin Galactic after it appeared that Virgin Galactic management had covered up the incident.

A well-respected Virgin Galactic pilot, who raised concerns about the company's safety procedures, has also left the company. However, he was fired over Zoom. In a May 2021 book by Nicholas Schmidle, who also wrote The New Yorker’s report, Virgin Galactic's lead pilot and flight-test director Mark Stucky criticised Virgin Galactic's management. According to The New Yorker, Stucky was "removed from his flight duties" and exempted from key planning meetings after the publication of the book. He was fired eight days later.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner lifts off under the wings of VMS Eve, its carrier plane, at Spaceport America, New Mexico, on July 11, 2021. Virgin Galactic image credit

Virgin Galactic, after the success of its July 11 flight, resumed selling space tourism tickets via its SpaceShipTwo, increasing the cost to nearly $450,000 per seat.

In September, the company will launch its next SpaceShipTwo mission. This time it will be carrying an Italian Air Force crew to suborbital space. Virgin Galactic will ground VMS Eve, its mothership, for eight months to conduct "enhancements," as the company announced last month.

Send Hanneke Weitering an email at hweitering@space.com. Follow her @hannekescience. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @Spacedotcom

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