Virgin Galactic Reports Itself to the FAA When Mechanism Falls Out of Place

By: Georgia | Published: Feb 17, 2024

Virgin Galactic self-reported an incident to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) involving a detached alignment pin from its suborbital spaceplane’s attachment system.

This pin is critical for ensuring the correct alignment of the spaceplane, named Unity, to its mothership, VMS Eve, during ground preparations. Virgin Galactic emphasized the importance of this component for the safety and reliability of their operations.

The Role of the Alignment Pin

The alignment pin’s purpose extends beyond ground operations. During flight, it facilitates the transfer of load from Unity to the shear pin fitting assembly and into the mothership’s pylon and center wing.

A Virgin Galactic aircraft with registration number N48VG is being prepared on a runway with a team of ground crew around it

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

Despite its detachment after Unity was released, Virgin Galactic assured that the pins “do not support the spaceship’s weight, nor do they have an active function once the spaceship is released.”


Assurance from Virgin Galactic

Following the incident, Virgin Galactic stated, “At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board.”

A Virgin Galactic spacecraft is being towed on the tarmac at dusk, with the Spaceport America building in the background under a dramatic twilight sky

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

This incident occurred despite the recent success of Galactic 06, a mission that demonstrated the capabilities of their suborbital spaceflight system by carrying a crew of six more than 55 miles above Earth.

Impact on Future Flights

Virgin Galactic has plans for the next flight of Unity in the second quarter of 2024, The Register reports.

Virgin Galactic's aircraft, is parked on the runway during a maintenance check. Ground crew members can be seen inspecting the plane, with mountains in the background providing a serene backdrop

Source: Getty Images

However, the company has cautioned that these plans are subject to review based on the outcome of the investigation into the detached pin incident. This event has prompted a thorough examination of their flight safety procedures and mechanisms.

Workforce and Operational Changes

SpaceNews reveals that in November 2023, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, Michael Colglazier, announced a significant operational pivot. The company will pause flights from mid-2024 to concentrate on developing the next generation of spaceplanes, the Delta class.

A photo featuring two astronauts in blue Virgin Galactic flight suits flanking a smiling man in casual clothing. They are standing on the tarmac with a Virgin Galactic spacecraft

Source: Michael Colglazier/Instagram

Additionally, approximately 18 percent of Virgin Galactic’s workforce will be let go as part of this strategic reorientation.

Safety and Maintenance Priorities

Virgin Galactic emphasized that the detached alignment pin did not compromise safety. This reassurance comes as VMS Eve had recently completed a comprehensive maintenance period, marking a transition to commercial operations, The Register notes.

A Virgin Galactic spaceplane, marked with the registration number N348MS, is parked on the tarmac in front of the curved glass façade of Spaceport America. The white spaceplane features the iconic Virgin logo and the word "GALACTIC" in bold blue letters

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

The incident raises questions about the durability and reliability of the spacecraft components, even if they do not directly impact flight safety.


FAA Involvement in the Investigation

The FAA has acknowledged the incident, stating, “A mishap occurred during the Virgin Galactic Galactic 06 commercial human spaceflight mission… The mishap involved an issue with an alignment pin.”

The Wilbur Wright Building of the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration is depicted on a sunny day with a clear blue sky

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The FAA’s oversight ensures that Virgin Galactic adheres to its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements.


Virgin Galactic's Discovery Process

The Register reports that Virgin Galactic discovered the missing pin through their camera system during routine post-flight reviews.

An overhead view capturing the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft on a tarmac

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

This proactive approach to safety and maintenance highlights the company’s commitment to adhering to the highest standards of spaceflight safety and operational integrity.


Clarification on the Delta Vehicles

Addressing potential concerns, Virgin Galactic clarified that the detached pin is a component of the mothership – VMS Eve, not the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft.

A group of five individuals, four men and one woman, wearing blue Virgin Galactic flight suits with gold accents, pose confidently inside a building with large windows overlooking a desert landscape

Source: Michael Colglazier/Instagram

This distinction is crucial for understanding the specific functions and responsibilities of the different components of Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight system.


Reaffirming the Mission's Success

Virgin Galactic reiterated the success of the Galactic 06 mission, stating it was conducted in accordance with the company’s rigorous flight procedures and protocols.

The Virgin Galactic carrier aircraft, is in flight against a clear blue sky, with another spacecraft attached between its two fuselages

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

The detached alignment pin did not impact the safety of the crew or the success of the mission, underscoring the resilience of their safety measures.


Public Announcement and Market Reaction

Virgin Galactic made the incident public five days after notifying the FAA. This transparency did not negatively impact the company’s share price, which saw a slight increase in afterhours trading, SpaceNews reveals.

A close-up view of the tail section of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, featuring the Virgin brand logo in purple on a white background

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

Virgin Galactic’s open communication about the incident demonstrates their commitment to transparency and safety.


Looking Forward to Galactic 07

Virgin Galactic is preparing for Galactic 07, the next mission, which will include a researcher and private astronauts, according to SpaceNews.

A large group of individuals gathers in front of the Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spacecraft and its carrier aircraft inside a spacious hangar

Source: Virgin Galactic/X

This upcoming flight, planned for the second quarter, represents an important step in Virgin Galactic’s mission schedule before the planned pause in flights to focus on the development of the Delta class spaceplanes.