As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne as Chief Astronaut Beth Moses looks on. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Newly arrived back on Earth after a quick visit to space, Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses was effusive as she described the suborbital flight she had just taken aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity.

“Richard, you’re going to love it!” she told Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, who had remotely monitored the Feb. 22, 2019 flight that had taken place over California’s Mojave Desert.

Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses floats in the cabin as David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci pilot VSS. Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

After being dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, VMS Eve, the rocket plane had fired its hybrid engine for 60 seconds as it rocketed upward through a clear blue sky. VSS Unity set new records as it topped off at an altitude of 89.9 km (295,007 ft) and a speed of Mach 3.04. Moses spent several minutes floating around the cabin and gazing down at Earth to evaluate the experience for Virgin Galactic’s 600 plus ticket holders.

Pilots David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci deployed VSS Unity‘s “feather”, which reconfigured the ship into the shape of a shuttlecock to ease its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The pilots guided SpaceShipTwo to an unpowered landing on Runway 12/30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port where the flight began.

A bagpiper in full regalia welcomed back Mackay, who had just become the first Scotsman to fly to space. As the crew popped champagne, a happy crowd of Virgin Galactic employees and ticket holders celebrated the company’s second suborbital flight test in as many months.

The future looked as bright as the Mojave sky that day. After several more flight tests, Branson would climb aboard to inaugurate commercial suborbital space tourism flights, finally fulfilling a promise he made way back in 2004. A program marred by years of delays and fatal accidents had finally turned a corner.

Or, so it seemed. While it was all smiles and champagne in public, behind the scenes things were falling apart. Literally.

A “Close Call

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Sources have told Parabolic Arc that VSS Unity sustained damage during the February 2019 flight that kept the vehicle grounded for 14 months and delayed a test program that Virgin Galactic has still not completed almost two years later.

“SS2 elevons were replaced after last powered flight. Way too damaged to fly again. Whole structure ruptured. Landed long to avoid cameras,” said one source, who called the February 2019 flight a “close call.” Sources insisted upon anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

SpaceShipTwo’s elevons are surfaces on the wings used to control the vehicle’s pitch and roll in flight. The pilots were able to land VSS Unity safely despite the damage, touching down long on Runway 12/30 in an effort to avoid photographers covering the vehicle’s return, the source said.

The damage occurred on VSS Unity‘s fifth powered flight and second flight above the 50-mile (80.4 km) altitude the United States considers the boundary of space. It was the 12th independent flight of the spacecraft and 16th test overall. Before beginning powered flights on April 5, 2018, VSS Unity had flown seven glide flights and four captive carry tests attached to the VMS Eve mother ship.

Once VSS Unity was back in the hangar in Mojave, engineers began the task of diagnosing what had caused the damage to the elevons. The company also used the down time to outfit the cabin for passenger service and make modifications to prepare the ship for frequent flights once commercial service began.

The damaged elevons were the main cause of the delay, sources said. Replacing them turned out to be a complicated process.

“Anything can be fixed or replaced. The variables are time and money. Redesigning, analyzing, sourcing, tooling, manufacturing, instrumenting, statically testing, and replacing structures is complicated, especially when a material change is made. Even more so when those structures directly control the trajectory of the rocket. Fail any step along the way and you’re back at square one,” a source said.

“That explains lengthy grounding and then the glides in NM. Need to re-expand the flight envelope. Other serious structure problems now appearing, including composite structure coming apart. Adding bolts to try to hold things together,” the source added.

Sources also described the 12-year old VMS Eve. which first flew in December 2008, as “falling apart.”

“Mothership has problems too. Launch pylon is falling apart. SS2 is way to heavy. Way heavier than mothership was designed for,” the source said.

Asked to comment for the story, Virgin Galactic issued a statement that did not address the specific issues raised by the sources.

“We have upgraded various structures and systems during our development program, based on analysis and flight test, and we feel confident about our space vehicle. We look forward to conducting our next flight test in New Mexico, which we are preparing for now,” the company said. “Flight test programs are an iterative process with safety as the first priority, and it is well known that we have overcome a variety of technical challenges over the course of the past 15 years.  As we are still in the flight test phase of the program, we continue to analyze, inspect and modify the vehicles as necessary.”

Restarting the Flight Test Program

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

In February 2020, VSS Unity was relocated from Mojave to its future operating base at Spaceport America in New Mexico during a three-hour captive carry flight flown by VMS Eve.

VSS Unity had not flown on its own for 13 months when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. New Mexico issued a stay at home order closing all non-essential businesses that went into effect on March 24. California had issued a similar order on March 18 that affected Virgin Galactic’s operations at Mojave.

Virgin Galactic was allowed to restart its operations with precautions to protect workers from the coronavirus. Progress became slower, with a many employees working remotely.

On May 1, 2020 — more than 14 months after its second suborbital flight — VSS Unity conducted its first glide flight from Spaceport America. A second glide flight followed on June 25. The tests allowed the pilots to expand the flight envelope and determine how well the modified ship performed, sources said.

Virgin Galactic attempted its third suborbital flight on Dec. 12, nearly 22 months after its second one. However, VSS Unity‘s engine shutdown prematurely after the ship’s computer lost contact with it. Pilots Mackay and C.J. Sturckow glided the ship back to a runway landing at Spaceport America.

On Monday, Virgin Galactic announced that the window for VSS Unity‘s third suborbital flight opens on Feb. 13 — just under two years after its most recent spaceflight. The test will be a repeat of the aborted flight in December, with two pilots and a load of NASA-funded microgravity experiments in the passenger cabin.

“The flight will incorporate all of the original test objectives from the previous test flight, including evaluating elements of the customer cabin, testing the live stream capability from the spaceship to the ground, and assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during the boost phase of the flight,” the company said in a press release.

Two more tests are scheduled to follow in the months ahead to complete the flight test program and pave the way for commercial flights. Virgin Galactic has not released a schedule for the remaining tests. Future flights will be dependent upon the analysis of data from the upcoming test.

A Bold Plan from the “Disney Guy

Virgin Galactic declined to comment on why the damaged elevons were not disclosed to investors before Virgin Galactic merged with Social Capital Hedosophia and went public on the New York Stock Exchange in late October 2019.

Before the merger, the two companies had forecast that commercial SpaceShipTwo flights would begin in June 2020 even as engineers worked to replaced the elevons. Today, it looks like that scheduled has slipped a year or more.

The source also found it incredible this doesn’t show up in quarterly reports. Maybe Disney guy will be more transparent.”

Michael Colglazier (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The Disney guy is Michael Colglazier, who took over as CEO from George Whitesides in July 2020. Colglazier formerly ran Disney’s resorts around the world.

Colglazier has laid out a plan to fly SpaceShipTwo from multiple spaceports around the world. There would be 400 flights per year from each spaceport, with each SpaceShipTwo flying 50 times annually over a lifespan of 10 years. The spaceport would generate $1 billion in revenues apiece on an annual basis from flights and ancillary sources.

Whether Virgin Galactic can pull that off is a good question. SpaceShipTwo has never demonstrated anything close to that kind of a flight rate during testing. VSS Unity‘s only two suborbital flights in December 2018 and February 2019 were separated by 71 days. The shortest time between powered flights was 27 days.

Long periods between flight tests are normal to allow for data analysis and modifications to the vehicle. The point is there are at lot of unknowns about how well the ships will hold up to the stresses of frequent and repeated launches and reentries into the Earth’s atmosphere.

VSS Unity‘s elevons were damaged beyond repair on only its second space flight and fifth powered flight overall. The damage necessitated a 14-month grounding. Sources have talked about engineers adding bolts to hold VSS Unity together and serious problems cropping up on the company’s only mother ship, the aging VMS Eve.

The question is whether the technology will prove robust enough for each vehicle to fly as often as Colglazier envisions. If Virgin Galactic pushes the technology beyond its limits, the company could end up with a fatal accident with multiple causalities that could devastate its business.

If the current plan holds, Virgin Galactic will complete SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program with a total of 12 powered flights. VSS Unity would conduct eight of those flights, including five into space. The other four powered flights, none of which came close to leaving the atmosphere, were done with the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

VSS Enterprise broke up in flight over the Mojave Desert on its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014. Copilot Mike Alsbury died in the breakup while Pete Siebold parachuted to safety with serious injuries. The engine fired for only 12 seconds of a planned 38-second burn.

The crash set back to program back by six years. Virgin Galactic had been planning to fly Branson and his son, Sam, on the first commercial flight in the first quarter of 2015. That launch would have occurred after only six or seven powered flights of VSS Enterprise.

Completing SpaceShipTwo’s test program with 11 successful powered flights is better. However, it is far fewer than what Virgin Galactic told potential investors when it was seeking to raise $260 million in 2008.

Virgin Galactic said that prior to beginning commercial service, the company planned to put SpaceShipTwo through “50 test flights, of which approximately 30 are powered with the rocket motor,” according to a Credit Suisse information memorandum dated December 2008 obtained by Parabolic Arc.

There are no mandatory safety regulations for SpaceShipTwo. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not certify commercial space vehicles in the way it does airliners. Instead it will issue a launch license to Virgin Galactic to fly passengers.

The FAA’s primary mandate is protecting people on the ground who are not involved in the flight. The agency is barred from formulating mandatory safety regulations to protect passengers and crew members until there is a close call or fatal accident. The VSS Enterprise crash did not trigger that provision.

Under New Mexico law, passengers must sign a waiver that limits their right to sue for damages except in cases of gross negligence or intentional harm. As part of that process, Virgin Galactic must disclose the risks involved in the flight.

A source questioned just how candid Virgin Galactic will be in its disclosures.

“Hopefully their passengers are informed of the problems. Otherwise, what exactly are they consenting to?” the source said.