By Nicole Lyn Pesce
Richard Branson described his recent trip to the edge of space as “just magical” — but it had a few bumps.
Turns out, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft flew outside of its designated airspace for 1 minute and 41 seconds during its historic July 11 launch that brought the first tourists to suborbital space, according to a report in the New Yorker, and the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.
Journalist Nicholas Schmidle, who had access to Virgin Galactic (NYS:SPCE) and its pilots while reporting his new book “Test Gods,” describes a nail-biting scenario where a yellow caution light appeared on the ship’s console almost a minute into the flight. This was an “entry glide-cone warning,” meaning that the spacecraft was not ascending at the right angle — which meant it might not have enough glide energy to reach its landing destination.
“The craft was about 20 miles in the air above the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, and climbing, traveling more than twice the speed of sound,” Schmidle wrote. “But it was veering off course, and the light was a warning to the pilots that their flight path was too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical. If they didn’t fix it, they risked a perilous emergency landing in the desert on their descent.”
And this warning light is a big deal, he said. “C.J. Sturckow, a former Marine and NASA astronaut, said that a yellow light should ‘scare the sh– out of you,’ because ‘when it turns red it’s gonna be too late,’” Schmidle wrote.
The pilots had to make a quick decision: cut the motor and abort the Unity 22 mission, meaning Branson would not beat Jeff Bezos to become the first person to reach space in his own spaceship that day , which would be embarrassing to the company. Or they could take immediate corrective action to get back to a safe, upward trajectory — which they were able to do successfully in the end.
Related: Billionaire space race: As Jeff Bezos blasts off, here’s how his flight compares to Richard Branson’s trip
But the New Yorker article notes that while the crew corrected their course, the Unity deviated from its designated airspace for 1 minute and 41 seconds, or about 10% of its flight after it was released from its carrier aircraft. The New Yorker also reported that a Virgin Galactic spokesperson acknowledged the company did not notify the FAA at first. But the company is working with the FAA to update its procedures for alerting the agency.
Virgin Galactic responded in a statement shared with MarketWatch that, “we dispute the misleading characterizations and conclusions in the New Yorker article.”
The company describes the Unity 22 mission as “a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols.” When high altitude winds changed the trajectory of the spacecraft, “the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures.”
The statement added that, “At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”
As for the FAA investigation, Virgin Galactic said that Unity did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace. It did drop below the altitude of the airspace that is protected for Virgin Galactic missions for 1 minute and 41 seconds, however, before re-entering restricted airspace that is protected for Virgin Galactic missions.
“At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public,” it continued. “FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs. We are working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”
The FAA was not immediately available for comment.
This report comes almost two months after Branson’s successful suborbital flight , when the billionaire and five crew members reached an altitude 53.5 miles above the New Mexico desert. Amazon (NAS:AMZN) founder Bezos blasted off nine days later with five passengers, reaching 65 miles above the surface of the Earth in West Texas— the highest that a commercial space flight has flown.
Since then, Virgin Galactic has started selling seats on its space-tourism flights for $450,000 and up , and its stock surged immediately following the successful trip. Shares are up almost 20% for the year.