Virgin Galactic mothership loses alignment pin during space plane launch, FAA investigating

Virgin Galactic lost a piece of hardware used to mate its VSS Unity suborbital space plane to its VMS Eve mothership aircraft during its most recent commercial spaceflight.

The company said that during the Galactic 06 commercial spaceflight on Jan. 26, VMS Eve lost an alignment pin used to ensure that VSS Unity is held in the proper position when mated. As the two joined aircraft climb in altitude, the mated duo experience strong forces such as drag; the alignment pin helps to distribute these forces along Eve’s structural hardpoint, but does not support the weight of VMS Unity. Virgin Galactic says the pin detached after the space plane had separated from its mothership as planned, at an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13,700 meters).

Virgin Galactic notified the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the issue on Jan. 31, according to a company statement. Despite the lost pin, the company says there was no danger and no damage to either aircraft, and, because the flight took place in controlled airspace, there was little hazard posed to anything below it. 

“‘Galactic 06’ was a safe and successful flight that was conducted in accordance with Virgin Galactic’s rigorous flight procedures and protocols,” the company wrote in the statement. “At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board.”

Virgin Galactic will conduct an investigation alongside the FAA and provide an update ahead of its next mission, Galactic 07, set to lift off sometime in the second quarter of 2024.

The FAA issued a statement that says Virgin Galactic will be grounded until the investigation is completed. “A return to flight is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” the FAA’s statement reads, according to CNN. “In addition, Virgin Galactic must request and receive approval from the FAA to modify its license that incorporates the corrective actions and meets all other licensing requirements.”

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Aside from the dropped pin, Galactic 06 was noteworthy in that it sent the first Ukrainian woman to space (depending on where one defines space; Virgin Galactic’s flights don’t quite reach the boundary many people use to define the edge of space, known as the Karman line).

The flight also marked one of the last for Unity, if all goes according to schedule. The company has plans to retire its current fleet of suborbital vehicles in favor of its new “Delta class” space planes, which will be able to fly at a cadence of two missions per week. The first Delta class vehicle is expected to begin test flight campaigns in 2025, with commercial flights opening up in 2026.

A ticket aboard the six-passenger Unity currently costs $450,000. 


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