Richard Branson’s trip to near-space in July wasn’t quite the picture-perfect flight we were led to believe at the time. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the company notice that all their space flights will be put on hold until an investigation is completed. So what happened?
Indeed, the Unity 22 flight, as far as we knew until now, seemed to go exactly as planned, but as the New Yorker article reveals, pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci ignored warning lights during the ascent. Specifically, the pilots brushed off an “entry glide cone warning,” which indicated that VSS Unity wasn’t climbing steeply enough and that the spaceplane wouldn’t have enough energy to glide back to the designated runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
And by flying outside of this cone-shaped volume of space, the spaceplane strayed beyond the mandated airspace for the mission, which it did for 1 minute and 41 seconds. This is a big no-no for the FAA, who enforces these rules.
The New Yorker article suggests the pilots should’ve aborted the mission when the warning lights came on. The warning should’ve served like the discouraging Monopoly card: Go directly to runway jail, do not pass into orbital space, and do not collect $200. Had the pilots done that, however, Richard Branson would probably not have been the first billionaire to reach space—especially given that Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos achieved the same feat just a few weeks later. Instead of aborting the mission, however, the pilots allowed VSS Unity’s engines to go at full throttle for the required one full minute.
This grounding will put some would be space tourists, willing to shell out $450,000 each for a flight, on hold for now. Read more about the kerfuffle at Gizmodo.
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