Sir Richard Branson aboard Virgin Galactic's space plane
Credit: Virgin Galactic
Sir Richard Branson’s historic flight to the edge of space is under investigation by US authorities after his rocket reportedly veered off course, triggering emergency warning lights for its pilots.
The Virgin Galactic flight on July 11 took the billionaire to a height of 50 miles, where he and the crew experienced a brief period of weightlessness.
In a public relations coup, the flight narrowly beat rival space baron Jeff Bezos in his own mission to fly to the boundary of space. Mr Bezos’s own attempt took off and landed successfully just nine days later.
According to the New Yorker, Sir Richard’s maiden voyage drifted outside its designated flight path for one minute and 41 seconds of its 15 minute flight. The flight is now under investigation by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
The magazine claimed a red alert sign came on, shortly before the flight reached its apogee, the point at which its rocket booster powers down.
Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying Richard Branson and crew, begins its ascent to the edge of space above Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, US July 11, 2021
Credit: VIRGIN GALACTIC via Reuters
The report said the red warning light would appear in the event of the rocket struggling to reach its required angle of approach. The New Yorker claimed that multiple sources said “the safest way to respond would have been to abort”.
Virgin Galactic admitted the flight was being investigated, but disputed the idea the flight should have been aborted.
A spokesman said the change in trajectory had been caused by high winds, but added: “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures.
“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.”
Virgin Galactic said some of the New Yorker’s claims included “misleading characterisations and conclusions”.
Virgin Galactic told Reuters: “The flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace… for a short distance and time (one minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace”.
“At no time did the ship travel above any population centres or cause a hazard to the public.”
The FAA confirmed an investigation was ongoing. Virgin Galactic shares fell 2pc on the report.
Virgin Galactic’s flight programme has previously endured brushes with danger, with tragic consequences.
In 2014, its VSS Enterprise craft suffered a catastrophic breakup over the Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury. A review by the US National Transportation Safety Board cited design failings and pilot training shortcomings for the disaster.
Shortly after Sir Richard’s flight in July, a core member of the company’s safety team and former lead test pilot, Mark Stucky, was fired from the company, the New Yorker reported. Mr Stucky is said to have criticised some of Virgin Galactic’s safety procedures.