Virgin Galactic grounded, but still announces commercial research mission

3 Sep 2021

The VSS Unity. Image: Virgin Galactic

The VSS Unity has been grounded for flying off-course in its Unity 22 mission but that hasn’t stopped Virgin announcing its next flight.

Virgin Galactic is set to run its first commercial research mission with humans on board the VSS Unity, if it can overcome regulatory hurdles thrown up by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The Unity 23 mission intends to take members from the Italian Air Force and National Research Council to investigate the effects that occur within the human body when venturing into microgravity.

The problem is that the VSS Unity has been temporarily grounded by the FAA. The ban comes after Branson’s summer trip onboard the spacecraft, which veered outside of its designated flight area for one minute and 41 seconds.

A red warning light

First reported in The New Yorker, a red warning light appeared during the flight indicating that there was a trajectory problem and corrective action must be immediately taken. This resulted in the spacecraft leaving its FAA-approved trajectory.

While the flight landed safely, the New Yorker report on Wednesday was followed by the FAA grounding future flights until a probe is completed.

“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico,” said a Virgin Galactic spokesperson.

“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”

The statement also said that Virgin Galactic “dispute[s] the misleading characterisations and conclusions in the New Yorker article”.

Calm and collected

Seemingly unfazed by the ban, the company released detailed plans for its Unity 23 flight. It said the cargo will also help evaluate the effects of microgravity on a variety of chemical and physical properties.

“The commercial space industry is providing scientific opportunities that were unthinkable a decade ago,” said Sirisha Bandla, head of Virgin Galactic Research.

“By offering routine access to space, with a flight profile that can be tailored to the payloads on board, we are offering novel prospects for researchers to conduct microgravity science and technology development.”

Walter Villadei and Angelo Landolfi are both members of the Italian Air Force scheduled to be on the crew. Villadei is a space engineer and will be tending to the rack-mounted payloads during the weightless portion of the flight. Landolfi is a physician who will be conducting tests on cognitive performance during microgravity. He will also investigate the mixing of liquids and solids in microgravity.

Pantaleone Carlucci is the member from the National Research Council who will be onboard. He will wear sensors to track heart rate, brain function and other performance metrics in microgravity.

The company said it is targeting a flight window in late September or early October, pending technical checks and weather. It also said it would be working in partnership with the FAA to address its flight deviation.

Virgin Galactic is currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent it from happening on future missions. Whether this will be sufficient to overcome the temporary grounding in time for the intended flight window is anyone’s guess.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news