Virgin Galactic Holdings experienced an in-flight hardware issue during its most recent crewed space tourism flight, the Richard Branson-founded company said on Monday.
A pin used to align Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, VSS Unity, and its carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, while both vehicles are mated on the ground later became detached during the January 26 flight. Virgin Galactic said the pin doesn’t support the weight of the spaceplane during the climb to altitude.
“At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board,” the company wrote.
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The company didn’t specify a cause of the pin malfunction. It said the pin became dislodged after VSS Unity had been deployed, when the pin no longer served any active function.
Virgin said it caught the issue during routine post-flight reviews and notified the Federal Aviation Administration on January 31. The FAA said in a statement that no public injuries or public property damage have been reported. The agency is overseeing a Virgin Galactic-led mishap investigation, it added.
Virgin Galactic kicked off commercial spaceflight operations in 2023 after almost two decades of development. Since then, the company has performed six tourist and research flights that have carried customers to the edge of space and back.
Virgin Galactic has grappled with in-flight issues over the years. When the company famously flew founder Branson to space in 2021, the spaceplane deviated from its intended flight path, prompting a mishap investigation overseen by the FAA. In 2014, a Virgin Galactic operated spaceplane crashed when its wings shifted prematurely midflight, causing the death of one test pilot and injuring another pilot.
Virgin Galactic said it will provide further updates and confirm the timing of its next mission — currently planned between April and June — after its review with the FAA.
The review comes amid heightened scrutiny of the FAA and the aerospace industry in the wake of the fallout from manufacturing issues with Boeing Co.’s 737 Max 9 jets.
However, the FAA is prohibited from mandating safety standards on commercial spacecraft that fly humans to space, though this legislative moratorium is set to expire on March 8.
Virgin Galactic’s January 26 flight was the first time the company sent four tourists to space without a Virgin Galactic astronaut acting as support staff.
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