back to article Branson (in a) pickle: FAA grounds Virgin Galactic flights after billionaire's space trip veered off course

America's aviation safety officials have grounded Virgin Galactic flights after its rocket trip that took company founder Richard Branson up into the heavens for a few minutes went off course. In July, the beardy British billionaire and his crew briefly reached an altitude of 86km (53 miles) aboard a rocket plane dubbed …

  1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

    The "..in strict accordance with our established procedures" means "get the boss into space at all costs".

    The pilots' unwillingness to abort when outside the envelope is a bit worrying, especially in the context of a race between three rich people who don't get told "no" often enough.

    1. wolfetone Silver badge

      When money, prestige, and ego are all at stake - fuck safety.

      1. teknopaul Silver badge

        Yeah but no but, they were below the airspace restricted. Abort would not takes them back into restricted airspace, Shirley?

        Strikes me this was not a safety issue. Presumably someone thinks about where the blighter will land if it don't go up.

        1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

          Disclaimer: I'm not an expert but I couldn't resist commenting anyway. The below is basically speculation.

          It's a safety issue because there are potentially other craft using the airspace that you're not supposed to be in right now.

          If you abort, yes you'll end up even further outside your predefined limits, but once you've called the abort that changes the rules and the priority becomes getting you down safety.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            Not many other aircraft likely to be around at 50,000 feet to apogee. A HAB maybe. Or a military mission.

            The safety is absolutely essential to the whole thing, the enterprise might not recover from any loss of aircraft or those personnel.

      2. Precordial thump

        That was Apollo 1, wasn't it? Or was that Soyuz 1? Or...

    2. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Yup, Beardy beating everyone else to 80km was the driver.

      The massive hype about being first then selling off a big % of his shares does fit with beardys normal mode of operation.

      Though TBF the climb out was only a bit outside the envelope resulting in being outside the controlled airspace at the top of the curve, basically waaay above any other civilian operational altitude.

      FAA are playing hardball because since the 737-max self certification fiasco everything is by the book.

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        "The massive hype about being first then selling off a big % of his shares does fit with beardys normal mode of operation."

        Exactly. People critcise Branson but that is his modus operadi - set something up, demonstrate its viability thus increasing its initial value multiple times and then sell it off, often with a licence to use the Virgin branding, and let the new owners do the donkey work.

        The other way is to set up a company then continue to take basic income plus work to increase value by a relatively small percentage per year. If you've got the ability to see and exploit a niche in the market, Branson's solution always has the potential to be more lucrative if the development costs can be controlled.

      2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        I'm not sure the argument about being a bit outside the curve holds though. Just because the Virgin craft is so constrained in what it can do. I'm presuming it's limited on maneuverability when under rocket power, and also on the glide phase. Obviously they can't go up, and rapidly descending might also be a problem, depending on how close they are to their runway - and how fine their margins are.

        A lot of this may have happened above normal traffic, doesn't controlled airspace only go up to 50,000 feet anyway? But I can see why the FAA are concerned. Although I'm a bit surprised they've done this as a public announcement. But then maybe they think that SpaceX, Virgin and Blue Origin all need to be shown their teeth a few times, to keep them on the straight-and-narrow and stop them getting ideas. Particularly given how Musk and Bezos (in particular) treat regulations in their other industries.

        1. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

          journalism

          "But I can see why the FAA are concerned. Although I'm a bit surprised they've done this as a public announcement."

          I read in another source that the FAA still has not made any public announcement. The journalist Schmidle is the one making it public.

    3. tony72

      We really need to wait for the results of the investigation before we can make any such claims. Even in terms of what was reported (and of course journalists and authors would never sensationalise aspects of a story to generate views, no), the response to that warning light wasn't "you must abort", it was "an abort is probably the safest course". However the whole point of putting human pilots on board is to make judgement calls based on the situation at hand. There are any number of factors that could have influenced the pilots' decision not to abort, such as exactly how far off the glide slope they were, where and when the warning occurred, their previous experience with similar situations in test flights and simulations, and so on and so forth. So personally I'm going to hold off criticising the pilots until I actually know it's justified.

      1. Doctor Tarr
        Trollface

        What, wait for the facts before making a judgement? That's not how the Internet works.

        Even when the facts are available the differing sides will call foul if they don't support their argument.

        1. Agamemnon
          Pint

          This one's on me.

          Previous comment was good in that...

          I helped launch Space Ship One (both damned launches running up and down I-5 from Santa Cruz to the Mojave assisting the X-Prize Foundation).

          Ok, so the engine is *basically* recycled rubber tires with Nitrogen Oxide pumped through some holes in the cross section as oxidizer. You can *sort of* shut the engine down but when it runs out by turning off the NO2 and it'll stop burning after it runs out of atmosphere. Then you loose velocity and surface control. Then, Space Ship One and Two become a Badmitton Shuttlecock on reentry.

          Growing up at NASA AMES I've flown in some seriously crazy things (that probably violated a million regulations, fortunately Test Zoomies are particularly crazy and a good time was had by all, especially a little boy that loves to fly). That being said:

          I would prefer the Zoomie In Charge (TM) keep the flight profile less Brick-Like, and Balls To The Wall is better than Lead Balloon.

        2. DS999 Silver badge

          Even when the facts are available the differing sides will call foul if they don't support their argument

          That's why "alternative facts" are so popular now. If reality doesn't support your argument, just declare a new reality!

          1. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit

            Yebbut "alternative facts" are not popular now. Even the tangerine shitgibbon in chief couldn't get away with them.

            1. DS999 Silver badge

              He did too get away with it

              Probably 25% of the US population will believe anything he tells them, based on his claims of election fraud with zero evidence produced nearly a year later.

              I'm not sure there is any lie he could tell them that they wouldn't believe, so long as Fox News and even more right wing media bless the lie.

            2. anothercynic Silver badge

              Are you sure?

              Alternative facts are still very popular.

              They're leading to things like people being sent to ICU with ivermectin poisoning, people refusing to vaccinate, people (how ironic it's all the 'I ain't takin' no vaccine' talking heads) then ending up in hospital or kicking the bucket over it.

              They lead to crap like the new abortion law in Texas (with South Dakota and Florida to follow).

              They lead to crap like the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

              So yeah, they're *still* very popular, despite what you might think.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "a race between three two rich people"

      ...and the race was for second place. SpaceX have already lofted "passengers" way higher :-)

  2. Flak

    Leaving the virtual tube

    If I read this correctly, the complaint is that the vehicle did not ascend inside a specified imaginary tube, but strayed outside it for 2 minutes. I doubt airspace at that altitude was terribly crowded (i.e. probably nothing else around for tens of miles) and this cannot be compared to someone drifting across lanes on a busy motorway.

    Will be interesting to see what the investigation establishes in any case.

    1. Fursty Ferret

      Re: Leaving the virtual tube

      That's not the point, really, is it?

      What we have is the two-fold problem of being able to reproduce the planned flight path neither accurately nor consistently, coupled with the failure to can the flight when it became obvious that it was straying outside agreed boundaries.

      That's exceptionally poor decision making (no doubt influenced by the cameras and boss on board).

      1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

        Re: Leaving the virtual tube

        That was the New Yorker's claim, but it has been refuted by Virgin - of course - and, more importantly, contradicted by the FAA's statement.

        What actually happened was a flaw in the planning for ATC interactions for the flight. That's easily fixable.

        1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

          Re: Leaving the virtual tube

          It hasn't been refuted by Virgin, because refutation requires evidence. It has been denied.

          1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

            Re: Leaving the virtual tube

            We have the evidence. We know the track of the flight. Virgin refuted the claims by explaining that they're inconsistent with the evidence.

    2. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: Leaving the virtual tube

      If I read this correctly, the complaint is that the vehicle did not ascend inside a specified imaginary tube, but strayed outside it for 2 minutes.

      In combination with "SpaceShipTwo was simply not climbing steeply enough.", I'd say a bit more tail wind (or less head wind) than calculated.

  3. MJI Silver badge

    Is this the same FAA who approved the Boeing crash planes?

    That is much more worrying.

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "the choice of either aborting the flight"

    Let's be real, that was never a choice. If there was any chance to keep going without loss of life, that's what they would choose.

    You can't take your boss for a ride and, because of an administrative alarm, tell him after one minute "uh, boss, we have to abort and all that publicity you made for yourself is going to come back negative times a hundred".

    Being grounded after the fact is negligible, PR-wise, compared to the absolute shitstorm that Branson would have been subject to if the mission had aborted.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: "the choice of either aborting the flight"

      "Being grounded after the fact is negligible, PR-wise, compared to the absolute shitstorm that Branson would have been subject to if the mission had aborted."

      AKA "it's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission" :-)

  5. anthonyhegedus Silver badge

    These billionaires and their stupid toys!

    Seriously, I'm all for progress, but I don't think this is progress, except for the billionaires concerned, of course.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      but I don't think this is progress

      I beg to differ.

      Sure, this is very obviously billionaire boss playtime, but on the other hand we have three groups of people (Brandon, Bezos, Musk) trying to tackle the problem of getting "up there" in different ways. There will be setbacks, there will be failures, and there will be successes. These companies are doing it themselves, and they have to please "the boss" and not a bunch of beancounting politicians, so this gives them a greater freedom to think outside the box.

      I mean, who the hell thought of landing a rocket the right way up. Along came SpaceX saying "hold my beer, I'll show you how it's done".

      Playtime? Yeah. But progress too. And since they seem to be in a bit of a willy-waving contest, we might see things heating up a little from this point on. Branson has been on about space for years (decades?), and now he has competent and capable competition, so he's going to have to up his game if he wants to stay in.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: but I don't think this is progress

        "I mean, who the hell thought of landing a rocket the right way up."

        Almost every SF author since the first story about rocketships?

        1. heyrick Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: but I don't think this is progress

          We already know most SF authors are well ahead of reality. I meant, who though of actually trying to pull it off for real.

          Have an upvote, from a fellow SF fan.

      2. MJI Silver badge

        Re: but I don't think this is progress

        >> who the hell thought of landing a rocket the right way up

        Gerry Anderson

        Musk had a lot of inspiration from him.

  6. Bunker_MonkeyUK

    Oh dear! even more delays!

  7. WhereAmI?

    This is only news because it involves Virgin Galactic. 'Level-busting' happens multiple times a day in the aviation world and almost never causes any problems ('almost' being a percentage way less than zero compared to how often it happens). The only injuries tend to be to the pilots when they get their knuckles rapped.

    WhereAmI? is an ex-private pilot, so I might just know a little bit about these things.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Way less than zero? How can percentage risk be below zero

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Less than zero risk

        Raising the dead, presumably.

  8. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    It's not just this event that's concerning. The NY article has a whole list of test flight problems (quite apart from the fatality) which Virgin Don't-Mention-The-Karman-Line dealt with firmly ... by sacking the chief test pilot. They are also grounding everything for eight months at least while they do major work to the launch plane, which suggests that it's not all quite as rosy as they like to claim. Only eleven years late to market and counting ...

  9. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Alien

    Oh well

    naughty naught branson.... but to be honest here...... who the f else is going to be flying around at 100 000 feet?

    Unless the FAA know something we dont...

    Cue X-files theme

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: Oh well

      who the f else is going to be flying around at 100 000 feet?

      Elon Musk's vehicles are reportedly crossing that altitude pretty frequently in a nearly vertical direction and at high speed.

      1. Falmari Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Oh well

        @A.P. Veening "Elon Musk's vehicles are reportedly crossing that altitude pretty frequently in a nearly vertical direction and at high speed."

        Not a problem I am sure Elon Musk's vehicle's auto pilot would have been able to avoid a collision.

      2. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Oh well

        OK, next time I peel an onion I'll be more careful in case it gets up the nose of someone in Monaco.

    2. Imhotep Silver badge

      Re: Oh well

      I believe the concern was with where they would be in the lower altitudes on the glide down to land.

  10. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

    And if they had aborted ...

    ... how far would they have strayed from the agreed flight path then? "Not climbing steeply enough" sounds like they were already starting to stray. Maybe by the time the warning lights came on they didn't have any FAA approved choices left.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And if they had aborted ...

      I suspect they'd keep a clear path for any abort profile. The problem was identified on ascent, but the actual violation occurred on descent if I'm reading things correctly. I'm imagining a giant cylinder around the launch area, and a relatively small glide path from apex to landing (overly simplified, I'm sure).

    2. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: And if they had aborted ...

      TBH I don't blame the pilots for continuing. It's certainly plausible, nay, likely that it was the safest option.

      Speed is life, altitude is life insurance and all that.

      More likely, nobody properly considered non-optimal flight paths when filing the paperwork planning the flight.

      1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: And if they had aborted ...

        Quote

        "More likely, nobody properly considered non-optimal flight paths when filing the paperwork planning the flight."

        And my experience of aerospace stuff says the craft wont fly until the pile of paperwork for it reaches the crafts maximum altitude......

        Joke icon....... but this is no joke!

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