“You’re on the ground ”is the last thing an aircraft manufacturer wants to hear from the FAA.
And it is no less alarming for airline passengers. It may mean finding out that a plane you just flew has suddenly been deemed too dangerous to fly.
The most serious example came in March 2019, when one of the most universal jets, the Boeing 737MAX, was grounded after a second fatal crash in less than five months, killing 346 people. This stranding lasted nearly two years and seriously damaged Boeing’s reputation.
He also revealed that the FAA’s oversight of Boeing was far too lax: Investigators found that there were enough issues with the new 737 model to justify being immobilized after the first crash. As a result, Steve Dickson, the FAA chief, has significantly tightened the screws on Boeing – and the way his agency now reviews every aerospace project.
This is why the Virgin Galactic grounding deserves careful consideration, not only for what it means for Richard Branson’s efforts to provide regular and reliable rides to the wealthy, but also for what it might reveal about the new FAA mood.
At first glance, the reason for this stranding does not seem serious enough to have long term consequences. It arose out of an event on July 11 when Branson made his first flight on his own ship, along with three others, and beat Jeff Bezos to start “space tourism.”
In a statement, the FAA said the ship, SpaceShipTwo, deviated from its air traffic control clearance when returning to Spaceport America. The pilots, he said, did not follow a predefined trajectory and, as a result, entered unauthorized airspace and “endangered the success of the mission.”
Galactic flights end the same way as NASA’s long-retired space shuttle gliding from space to a runway. Because after the rocket burns, the ship runs out of energy, the trajectory must be precise and maintain sufficient speed to reach the runway safely. Failure could potentially lead to a catastrophic crash landing.
The correct trajectory depends on what happens earlier, as the initial surge of rocket power at the edge of space determines the peak of flight, which in turn sets the trajectory for the short reentry phase. weightless and gliding. It was during this rocket combustion on July 11 that a warning light flashed, alerting the pilots that they were deviating from the prescribed path. Not only did this compromise the glide, but it placed them in airspace that was not clear to them, posing a potential danger to other aircraft. In this case, the pilots were able to correct their trajectory and the remainder of the flight proceeded as planned.
After the return of a jubilant Branson and a free publicity boon, there was no mention of a problem. Indeed, his flight director announced that “everything seemed perfect in real time… there was no problem.
However, the FAA reviewed the data from the flight and on July 23 launched an investigation, without making it public. Thanks, however, to the excellent reporting from the New Yorker Nicholas Schmidle, it went public, with an incisive account of other concerns about the safety of the program.
“Bezos and Musk, starting much later, had the advantage of much more advanced technology.“
Whatever the FAA determines that happened and how to fix it, this whole episode highlights a deeper and unique underlying problem with the Galactic program: its dependence on pilots.
Because there was something fundamentally anachronistic about this brief emergency: The computers detected the error, but it took human intervention to fix it. In terms of current space vehicle technology, it looks very dated, almost analog.
Galactic’s two competitors for civilian space travel, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, do not employ pilots. The human factor has been eliminated.
In fact, Galactic’s only fatal crash was the result of pilot error. In October 2014, a previous galactic rocket was on its fifty-fifth test flight when it ruptured catastrophically at 50,000 feet, leaving a 35 mile trail of debris on the ground. The co-pilot was killed and the pilot sustained serious injuries.
The FAA noted that the co-pilot prematurely activated a control surface. The investigation specifically criticized the design for not guarding against this kind of pilot error – a fault caused, they said, assuming the pilots were infallible. The system has been modified to make it impossible to repeat the error. (Mark Stucky, former Galactic 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. )
Galactic doesn’t just depend on pilots, every flight needs four, two in the mothership that takes the rocket when it launches into the stratosphere and two in the rocket. Branson’s maiden flight carried four passengers, including himself. Bezos’ New Shepard rocket carried him, his brother, and two others unmanned.
At the most basic level, that of cost, it’s obvious what the best business model is. (In fact, both systems are designed to carry two additional passengers, but neither has done so yet.)
Elon Musk’s debut in space tourism, slated for September 15 and publicized in a Netflix documentary, is of a whole different order – three days orbiting real space, and at literally astronomical cost. Tech-wise, Musk’s Dragon capsule, used to transport crews to and from the International Space Station, set the standard that NASA now sets as the benchmark for safety and reliability, a level that the newer Boeing’s Starliner capsule has not yet reached.
In this kind of business, Virgin Galactic looks completely outmatched.
When conceived in 2004, Branson’s idea was ahead of its time, a bold innovation, albeit conceived for a fundamentally frivolous purpose. He was right that NASA’s monopoly on spaceflight would end. But Galactic opted for a hybrid system, part rocket and part supersonic airplane, using airplane-like flight controls and relying on pilots to physically fly it in a practical way.
In contrast, capsule spaceflight, launched by giant booster rockets, as in the case of Bezos and Musk, operate in an entirely different physical regime. The speeds are so high and the technology so refined and intelligent that the drivers are redundant. The human factor is not eliminated. It simply remains on the ground, in mission control, monitoring the incredible array of super intelligent sensors and monitors that “drive” the machine with reaction times beyond human capability.
At the most critical moments for safety, during takeoff and acceleration with the massive power of the rocket, passengers traveling in the capsules are protected by an automatic ejection system, in which the capsule explodes away from the rocket and descends on parachutes. Galactic does not have a passenger ejection system.
Branson has no choice but to stick with his system, even if, due to the unusually long development time, it must appear increasingly outdated alongside the competition. In fact, he’s doubling down on developing a next-generation spacecraft, but the dependence on pilots will remain. Bezos and Musk, starting much later, had the advantage of much more advanced technology and went a very different route, never considering the need for pilots.
Branson still has a long way to go before he can meet his goal of making hundreds of flights a year. And there are echoes here of another British-led breakthrough that, bold as it is, has become a warning about the risks of being the first.
In 1949, the British flew the world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet. It was a dramatic leap from the heavy, piston-powered era of commercial airliners. The first Comets fleet entered regular service in 1952, doubling the speed of air travel and transforming the experience.
Then, in a year, there were three fatal accidents and the comet was pinned to the ground.
Air accident investigators discovered a fatal flaw that was very easy to correct: A weakness in the way the cabin windows were framed resulted in explosive decompression. A capillary fracture in the structure meant that when the jet reached a certain height, the cabin pressurization was suddenly released when the window blew.
Britain pioneered the jet engine and was ahead of its adaptation from military planes to commercial planes, but de Havilland lacked mass production skills and every comet was built virtually by hand. Boeing saw the opening and had more resources and skills in manufacturing. The result was the Boeing 707, launched in 1957, which was larger and more efficient than the Comet and the first truly successful intercontinental jet. Later versions of the Comet were much better (I flew on it and loved it), but the 707 still wasn’t.
The FAA will likely end Galactic’s grounding soon, after forcing 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 only come with the experience of much more frequent thefts, and that is still a long way off.