Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Has One Very Big Problem

·8 min read
Taylor Hill/Getty
Taylor Hill/Getty

“You’re grounded” is the last thing an airplane manufacturer wants to hear from the FAA.

And it’s no less alarming to airline passengers. It can mean discovering that an airplane you have just flown has suddenly been found too dangerous to fly.

The most serious example of that came in March 2019, when one of the most universally flown jets, the Boeing 737MAX, was grounded after a second fatal crash in less than five months, killing 346 people. That grounding lasted nearly two years and did great harm to Boeing’s reputation.

It also revealed that the FAA’s oversight of Boeing was far too lax: Investigators found that there was enough wrong with the new model 737 to justify grounding it after the first crash. As a result, Steve Dickson, the head of the FAA, has greatly tightened the screws on Boeing–and on the way his agency now scrutinizes every aerospace project.

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That’s why the grounding of Virgin Galactic merits a close look, not only for what it means for Richard Branson’s effort to deliver regular and dependable joy rides for rich people but also for what it might reveal about the FAA’s new mood.

On the face of it, the reason for this grounding doesn’t seem grave enough to have long-term consequences. It arose from one event on July 11 when Branson took his first flight on his own ship, along with three others, and beat out Jeff Bezos to launch “space tourism.”

In a statement, the FAA said that the ship, SpaceShipTwo, had deviated from its air traffic control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America. The pilots, it said, failed to follow a preset trajectory and, as a result, entered unauthorized air space and “endangered mission success.”

Galactic flights end the same way that NASA’s long-retired Space Shuttle did, by gliding from space to a runway. Because, after the rocket burn, the ship has no power, the trajectory has to be precise–maintaining enough speed to safely reach the runway. Falling short could potentially lead to a disastrous crash landing.

Getting that trajectory right depends on what happens earlier, as the initial burst of rocket power to the edge of space determines the apogee of the flight, which, in turn, sets the trajectory for the short weightless re-entry phase and the glide. It was during that rocket burn on July 11 that a warning light flashed, alerting the pilots that they were deviating from the prescribed trajectory. Not only did that jeopardize the glide, but it put them into air space that was not cleared for them, presenting a potential danger to other aircraft. In the event, the pilots were able to correct their course and the rest of the flight went according to plan.

After a jubilant Branson returned to earth and a bonanza of free publicity, there was no mention of any problem. Indeed, his flight director announced that “everything looked perfect in real time… there were no issues whatsoever.”

However, the FAA reviewed data from the flight and, on July 23, they launched an investigation, without making it public. Thanks, however, to great reporting by the New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle, it did become public, along with an incisive account of other concerns about the safety of the program.

Whatever the FAA determines happened, and how it should be remedied, this whole episode highlights a deeper, underlying problem that is unique to the Galactic program: its dependence on pilots.

For there was something fundamentally anachronistic about the brief emergency: Computers detected the error but it required human intervention to fix it. In terms of current space vehicle technology, that looks very dated, almost analog.

Galactic’s two competitors for civilian space travel, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX don’t employ pilots. The human factor has been eliminated.

In fact, Galactic’s only fatal crash was a result of pilot error. In October 2014, an earlier Galactic rocket ship was on its fifty-fifth test flight when it suffered a catastrophic break-up at 50,000 feet, leaving a 35-mile long trail of debris on the ground. The co-pilot was killed and the pilot suffered serious injuries.

The FAA found that the co-pilot prematurely activated a control surface. The investigation specifically criticized the design for not safeguarding against that kind of pilot error–a flaw caused, they said, by assuming that pilots were infallible. The system was changed to make a repeat of the error impossible. (Mark Stucky, Galactic’s former flight test director, claimed on Twitter that the July 11 incident was also likely caused by pilot error, not high altitude winds as the company claimed.)

Not only does Galactic depend on pilots–every flight needs four of them, two in the mother ship that takes the rocket ship to its launch in the stratosphere, and two in the rocket ship. Branson’s maiden flight carried four passengers, including him. Bezos’s New Shepard rocket carried him, his brother, and two others with no pilots.

At the most basic level, of cost, it’s obvious what is the better business model. (In fact, both systems are designed to carry two more passengers, but neither has yet done so.)

Elon Musk’s space tourism debut, due on September 15 and hyped in a Netflix documentary, is of a totally other order– three days orbiting in real space, and at a literally astronomical cost. As for the technology, Musk’s Dragon capsule, used to ferry crews to and from the International Space station, has set the standard that NASA now decrees as the benchmark for safety and reliability–a level that Boeing’s new Starliner capsule has yet to meet.

In this kind of company, Virgin Galactic looks completely outclassed.

When conceived, in 2004, Branson’s idea was ahead of its time, a daring innovation, even if designed for a fundamentally frivolous purpose. He was right to see that NASA’s monopoly on space flight would end. But Galactic settled for a hybrid system, part rocket ship and part supersonic airplane, using airplane-type flight controls and dependent on pilots to physically fly it, hands-on.

In contrast, space flights in capsules, launched by giant booster rockets, as in the case of Bezos and Musk, operate in a totally different physical regime. The speeds are so high and the technology so refined and intelligent that pilots are redundant. The human factor isn’t eliminated. It simply remains on the ground, in mission control, watching over the amazing array of super-smart sensors and monitors that are “flying” the machine with reaction times beyond human ability.

At the most safety-critical moments, at lift-off and accelerating on massive rocket power, passengers riding in the capsules are protected by an automatic ejection system, in which the capsule blasts clear of the rocket and descends on parachutes. Galactic has no passenger ejection system.

Branson has no choice but to stick with his system, even though because of the unusually long development time it was bound to look increasingly obsolescent alongside the competition. In fact, he’s doubling down on it by developing a next generation of spaceship, but the dependence on pilots will remain. Bezos and Musk, beginning much later, had the advantage of much more advanced technology and took their very different course, never considering the need for pilots.

Branson still has a long way to go before being able to meet his aim of conducting hundreds of flights a year. And there are echoes here of another British-led breakthrough that, bold as it was, became a cautionary tale about the risks of being first.

In 1949 the Brits flew the world’s first jet-powered airliner, the de Havilland Comet. It was a spectacular advance on the lumbering, piston-engined era of commercial airliners. The first fleet of Comets went into regular service in 1952, doubling the speed of air travel and transforming the experience.

Then, within a year, there were three fatal crashes and the Comet was grounded.

Air crash investigators found a fatal flaw that was very easy to fix: a weakness in the way the cabin windows were framed led to an explosive decompression. A hairline fracture in the structure meant that when the jet reached a certain height the pressurization of the cabin was suddenly released as the window blew out.

Britain pioneered the jet engine and was way ahead in adapting it from military to commercial airplanes, but de Havilland lacked mass production skills and each Comet was virtually hand-built. Boeing saw the opening and had greater resources and skills in manufacturing. The result was the Boeing 707, launched in 1957, which was larger and more capable than the Comet and the first really successful intercontinental jet. Later versions of the Comet were vastly better (I flew on it and loved it) but it was still no match for the 707.

The FAA will probably end the grounding of Galactic soon, after mandating changes. They are learning, along with Galactic, how to regulate safety in what is still a relatively experimental stage of development. But a mature safety regime can come only with the experience of far more frequent flights, and that remains a long way off.

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