Virgin Galactic’s Second Suborbital Flight Nearly Destroyed Ship and Killed Crew

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last week, I was hard at work on what I thought would be an exclusive: Virgin Galactic had a close call on its most recent suborbital flight in February 2019, which helped to explain why they had gone 22 months before they tried to repeat the flight in December 2020.

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

As I took a short break to scan Twitter, what did I see but that The Washington Post (WaPo) had just published a story on the February 2019 flight. Someone had arranged for the publisher to send the reporter a copy of an upcoming book that had a section about that same flight.

An amazing one-in-a-million coincidence? Or someone — the list of suspects is extremely short — trying to get out ahead of the story and tell their own version through what they view as a more sympathetic reporter?

Well, whatever. I can’t say I was the least bit surprised. To be honest, WaPo’s story was more detailed than mine. And it was one hell of a lot scarier. Really scary. So, let’s look at what engineers found after the flight ended. [Emphasis mine]

But when the ground crew wheeled the suborbital spacecraft back into the hangar, company officials discovered that a seal running along a stabilizer on the wing designed to keep the space plane flying straight had come undone — a potentially serious safety hazard.

“The structural integrity of the entire stabilizer was compromised,” Todd Ericson, a test pilot who also served as a vice president for safety and test, said, according to a soon-to-be-published book. “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”

Holy bleep.

Lucky to be alive. Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a near-fatal flight with champagne. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The three people on board were pilots David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci and Chief Astronaut Beth Moses, who is the wife of Virgin Galactic President of Space Missions and Safety Mike Moses.

So how did this happen? [Emphasis mine]

In the book, Schmidle wrote that the “seal had disbonded on the way up, as the pressure increased with nowhere to vent,” ultimately leaving a “wide gap running along the trailing edge of the right h-stab,” or horizontal stabilizer….

But after the 2019 flight, Schmidle reported that Ericson “had concluded that members of the maintenance team were ‘pencil whipping’ inspections — signing for inspections that were not conducted properly.” The inspectors, Schmidle wrote, not only failed to notice that the vents were blocked, causing the seal on the stabilizer to rupture, “but also missed a bag of screws taped to the inside of the h-stab.”

Oh my God! Where do they get these people? Are they the same employees who have harassed me at the bar in the hotel formerly known as the Mariah? The story said Ericson wanted the head of maintenance fired, but Moses refused the request.

The story also said:

  • Ericson decided to step down as vice president of safety in June 2019 because he had lost confidence in the company’s safety culture;
  • then-CEO George Whitesides was worried Ericson’s departure would look bad;
  • Ericson became the company’s vice president of special projects until October 2020, which was a year after the company went public;
  • Virgin Galactic spent $250,000 hiring an outside aviation expert, Dennis O’Donoghue, to conduct a safety review of the program;
  • the company has never released O’Donoghue’s report, fearing it would scare the 600 plus people who have signed up for suborbital rides;
  • Ericson was upset by the company’s decision to keep the incident quiet; and
  • Virgin Galactic paid a contractor to build a new stabilizer made of metal, not composite materials.

The WaPo story said the problem was not noticeable in flight. I was told the pilots landed long on the runway to try to avoid photographers filming the ship’s return.

It’s not the first time that Virgin Galactic’s safety culture has been questioned. The company went roughly a year without a vice president of safety after Jon Turnipseed left in December 2013.

During that time, Virgin Galactic was working with Scaled Composites VSS Enterprise to complete the flight test program of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, and to prepare the ship for commercial service. Scaled built the first spacecraft and its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, VMS Eve.

Richard Branson and his son, Sam, were to have been on the first commercial flight in the first quarter of 2015. But, it didn’t happen. VSS Enterprise broke up during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed in the crash; pilot Pete Siebold parachuted to safety with an arm broken in four places and pieces of composite materials in his eyes.

Virgin Galactic deflected questions about why it didn’t have a full-time vice president of safety during such a crucial period. Officials also insisted safety was their North Star. Two days after the crash of SpaceShipTwo, Richard Branson tweeted:

Safety has guided every decision we’ve made over past decade, any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue

The company also issued the following statement four days after the accident.

“At Virgin Galactic, safety is our guiding principle and the North Star for all programmatic decisions. Our culture is one of prioritizing safety as the most important factor in every element of our work, and any suggestions to the contrary are untrue.”

OK. But, why didn’t you fill the vice president of safety job in the 10 months leading up to the crash?

Ericson was hired to fill the position in December 2014, less than two months after the accident.

My story: As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes
WaPo’s story.