The air-dropped suborbital launch of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity carrying two crew plus four company trial passengers, including Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson, suffered a previously undisclosed trajectory anomaly involving a deviation from its air traffic controlled box. A shallower climb than expected resulted in a change of return trajectory on the on 11 July flight.
Even though the spacecraft landed safely back at Spaceport America, New Mexico, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the dramatic step of grounding all further Virgin Galactic flights until the anomaly, which has been blamed on high winds, had been studied.
Update on 30 September 2021: The company has since (on 29 September) been allowed to return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to operations on condition that they:
- Update calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights. Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.
- Incorporate additional steps into the Company’s flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.
Nevertheless, the company is unlikely to restart flights until next year due to an unrelated component fault issue with the flight control actuator system.
The flight anomaly which caused the FAA grounding was revealed by the New Yorker magazine, which reported that a “glide cone” warning light had alerted the pilots that a return to the landing site was in jeopardy. After the flight, which was originally declared a success, Virgin Galactic announced that ticket sales were reopening at a new cost of US$450,000 per seat, about US$200,000 more than the original price a decade ago.
Also after the flight, Sir Richard Branson sold more of his shareholding in the company to raise US$300 million, reportedly to bolster the finances of his pandemic-hit Virgin Atlantic airline. This was the third time he had offloaded shares in the firm, raising a total of US$1 billion. He still holds shares worth more than he has sold, although that valuation was before news of the flight anomaly leaked out.