You could have heard a pin drop: Virgin Galactic reports itself to the FAA
Everything's fine, but a fastening fell off when it shouldn't have
Updated Virgin Galactic has reported itself to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after discovering a detached alignment pin from the mechanism used to keep its suborbital spaceplane attached to the mothership aircraft.
According to the company, the alignment pin is used to ensure the spaceplane (in this case, Unity) is aligned correctly to the mothership (VMS Eve) during the mating of the vehicles on the ground.
In flight, the pin helps to transfer load from drag and other forces from Unity to the shear pin fitting assembly and into the pylon and center wing of the mothership. The alignment pin remained in place during the mated portion of the flight, but detached after Unity was released.
Virgin Galactic said: "While both parts play a role during mated flight, they do not support the spaceship's weight, nor do they have an active function once the spaceship is released."
However, having bits of your launch system detach unexpectedly is not great, despite the success of Galactic 06, a suborbital spaceflight launched on January 26, 2024. The mission carried a crew of six, including four private passengers, on a jaunt to just over 55 miles above the Earth before gliding back to a landing at Spaceport America.
The next flight of Unity is planned for the second quarter of 2024, although Virgin Galactic cautioned that this would depend on the review's outcome.
In November 2023, boss Michael Colglazier announced that flights would be paused from mid-2024 to allow the company to focus on building its upcoming Delta class of spaceplane. Colglazier also announced that approximately 18 percent of the workforce were to be let go.
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Virgin Galactic said of the incident: "At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board."
VMS Eve completed a lengthy maintenance period just over a year ago, followed by the company commencing commercial operations. Having something fall off, even as minor as a pin that did not affect flight safety is, therefore, a worry.
The company has not elaborated on the cause of the incident or responded to The Register's queries.
The FAA gave us the following statement: "A mishap occurred during the Virgin Galactic Galactic 06 commercial human spaceflight mission from Spaceport America in New Mexico on Jan. 26. Eight people were on the suborbital mission: two pilots on the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, and two pilots and four spaceflight participants on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The mishap involved an issue with an alignment pin that provides connection between the carrier aircraft and the spacecraft.
"No public injuries or public property damage have been reported. The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic-led mishap investigation to ensure the company complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements." ®
Updated to add on February 7:
A spokesperson from Virgin Galactic got back to us and, as well as reiterating the statement regarding its cooperation with the FAA, told us how the company discovered the issue: "We have imagery captured on our camera system. We noticed the pin was missing during routine post-flight reviews following its most recent spaceflight, 'Galactic 06'."
As for concerns regarding any potential impact on the company's upcoming Delta vehicles, the spokesperson said: "The pin is a part of the mothership – VMS Eve. Not Spaceship."