Virgin Galactic’s Former Flight Test Director Disputes Company’s Version of Off Course Flight with Richard Branson Aboard

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s recently fired flight test director claims that pilot error, not upper-level winds, resulted in the company’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle flying outside of its assigned airspace during a July 11 suborbital flight test that carried the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson. He suggested an independent investigation instead of a company-led one might be required to address the mishap.

Mark Stucky, who Virgin Galactic fired eight days after Branson’s flight, said his former employer put out an inaccurate statement about why VSS Unity flew unauthorized into Class A airspace for 1 minute 41 seconds during its descent. Class A airspace is primarily used by airlines, cargo operators and higher performance aircraft.

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Bank of America Rips Virgin Galactic for Failure to Disclose Out of Airspace Mishap on Richard Branson Flight

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Editor’s Note, Sept. 26: 2021: Story updated to reflect that Richard Branson began selling $300 million worth of Virgin Galactic shares on Aug. 10 the day before the FAA notified the company of a mishap during the July flight that carried the billionaire to space. The sale continued through Aug. 12.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Analysts at Bank of America who cover Virgin Galactic’s publicly-traded stock are not amused by the company’s failure to disclose that a SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight carrying founder Richard Branson flew outside of its assigned airspace on July 11, resulting in an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the grounding of the company’s only operational space plane.

“Point blank, in our view, it is unacceptable to have an event during a flight that, per FAA regulations, is considered a mishap and then claim that the mission was a full success,” analyst Ronald Epstein wrote in a note to investors. “The old adage, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, generally is a poor strategy in aviation.”

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Report: Branson’s Flight into Space Experienced Serious Anomaly; Company Fired Flight Test Director

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By all appearances, Richard Branson’s 17-years-in-the-making flight to the edge of space went exactly as planned on July 11. Or at least that was the impression left by Virgin Galactic’s webcast of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity’s flight test from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

But, for the second time in four suborbital flights, VSS Unity experienced a serious anomaly. The ship with its hybrid engine firing wasn’t rising steeply enough as it soared toward space, Nicholas Schmidle reports in The New Yorker:

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Virgin Galactic Successfully Completes First Fully Crewed Spaceflight

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Fourth Spaceflight Tests Private Astronaut and Research Experience
  • First In-Flight Livestream Brings Spaceflight Experience to Audiences Around the World 

LAS CRUCES, N.M. July 11, 2021 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“the Company” or “Virgin Galactic”) today announced that VSS Unity successfully reached space, completing the Company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight. 

Today’s flight was the 22nd test flight of VSS Unity and the first test flight with a full crew in the cabin, including the Company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson. The crew fulfilled a number of test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training program at Spaceport America.

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To Briefly Go: Billionaires Branson & Bezos Battle for Bragging Rights Where Few Have Gone Before

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Fewer than 25 suborbital spaceflights have ever been conducted
  • Most suborbital launches were conducted with vehicles retired decades ago
  • No suborbital flight has ever carried a paying passenger
  • There is no agreement on what even constitutes a suborbital spaceflight

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When Richard Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees strap into their seats aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on Sunday, they will briefly go where not very many have gone before: suborbital space.

Of the 374 attempts to launch astronauts to space since Yuri Gagarin flew into Earth orbit 60 years ago, only 23 were suborbital flights. The majority of those launches were conducted during the 1960’s using vehicles that long ago became museum pieces. One ended with the loss of the spacecraft and its pilot. And two flights were unintentional ones involving vehicles being launched into Earth orbit.

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Breaking Down Virgin Galactic’s Latest Flight Test

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me….

— “The Ballad of Serenity,” Sonny Rhodes

“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars.”

— New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By now, you’ve probably read the rhetoric flourishes in Virgin Galactic’s press release about the company’s first suborbital flight test in more than two years that was conducted on Saturday. Suffice to say, if the stars were located at the altitude that SpaceShipTwo actually reached (55.45 miles/89.2 km), they would take the sky away at the same time they burned the land and boiled the seas. Being suborbital, VSS Unity wouldn’t have helped anyone escape the inferno.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So, let’s just put doomsday out of our minds. It’s time to break down what the flight test accomplished, what comes next, and why 27 months passed between powered flights. And what about Jeff Bezos?

Ready? Let’s go!

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Virgin Galactic Completes First Human Spaceflight from Spaceport America, New Mexico

VSS Unity during its first suborbital flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. May 22, 2021 (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“The Company or Virgin Galactic”) today completed its third spaceflight and the first ever spaceflight from Spaceport America, New Mexico. Today’s flight sees New Mexico become the third US state to launch humans into space.

VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve, and reached space, at an altitude of 55.45 miles before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at Spaceport America.

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Virgin Galactic Stock Plunges as Company Delays Space Tourism Flights to 2022

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Shares of Virgin Galactic plunged sharply on Thursday as the company announced that it was postponing the start of commercial suborbital space tourism flights until 2022 due to additional delays in completing SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s test program.

Shares plunged in after hours trading to $36.69 after opening the day at $45.04. Most of the decline occurred in after hours trading following the release of Virgin Galactic quarterly and full year 2020 earning report.

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2020 a Busy Year for Suborbital Launches

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Suborbital launch used to be a sleepy field that rarely attracted much public attention. Let’s face it, atmospheric research and student experiments are not front-page news. Sounding rockets don’t have the majesty and power of a Falcon 9 or Atlas V.

In recent years, exciting new entrants in the field and widespread streaming of launches have made suborbital flights exciting. Last year saw important suborbital flight tests by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Skyrora that garnered worldwide interest.

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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.

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Virgin Galactic Looks on the Bright Side After Launch Abort

WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was a flight 22 months in the making. But, when it came time for the rubber to meet the oxidizer, the whole thing suddenly flamed out.

The hybrid engine on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity failed to fire properly on Saturday, sending the suborbital rocket plane, pilots David Mackay and C.J. Sturckow and a load of NASA-sponsored experiments into a rapid descent and landing back at Spaceport America, instead of a graceful parabolic arc into suborbital space.

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George Whitesides to Fly on Early Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Flight from Spaceport America

Richard Branson (l) and George Whitesides (r, back) walk with SpaceShipTwo pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky after a successful glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A provision in George Whitesides’ contract has Virgin Galactic’s chief space officer — and possibly his wife, Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides — flying on one of SpaceShipTwo’s early suborbital flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

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2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 amid raucous celebrations around the world. The arrival of a new year and decade merely confirmed what had been clear for months: 2019 was not the breakthrough year for getting humans off the planet.

Neither Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin followed through on long-standing promises to fly paying passengers on suborbital joyrides. An era of commercial space tourism that seemed so close that October day in 2004 when Brian Binnie guided SpaceShipOne to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port quietly slipped into yet another year.

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Virgin Galactic to Unveil New “Milestone” Next Week

Editor’s Note: My guess is they will unveil the passenger flight suits in some sort of fashion event, probably involving some fashion models. I wonder if Karlie Kloss, who has said her dream is to fly to space, will be there.

Why do I think it’s the flight suit? Ticket holders have been coming in and other of Mojave in recent months to get fitted for the “spacesuit.” There’s not going to be a lot of things going into space with them. And NYC is a major fashion capital.

Chief Pilot David Mackay gave a talk recently here in Mojave. He said passengers will not wear pressure suits, but they will have oxygen masks in the event of an emergency.

If they are unveiling the flight suit on Wednesday, calling it a milestone is a bit of a stretch. The Crew Dragon parachute drop tests, static fire, in-flight abort flight and orbital mission discussed during the briefing at SpaceX headquarters on Thursday are actual milestones.

Unveiling a flight suit is primarily a marketing and public relations event. Really important milestones will be completing the SpaceShipTwo flight test program and actually flying some passengers next year.