The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced the grounding of SpaceShipTwo, the Virgin Galactic vehicle that took billionaire Richard Branson 53 miles above the surface of the earth, and into space by NASA definition. 

The FAA will have to complete a “mishap investigation” before clearing it to fly again.

The mishap in question is that a yellow caution light on the ship’s console lit up during SpaceShip Two’s ascent.  

Aboard (in addition to Branson) were Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, David Mackay, another pilot, Michal Masucci, Virgin’s Interiors Program manager Beth Moses, and two space tourists, Sirisha Bandia and Colin Bennett.

Virgin Galactic (NYSE: SPCE) founded by Branson and his British Virgin Group in 2004, has high hopes for SpaceShip Two. It is a craft designed for suborbital flights that spend only a short time above the 50-mile boundary of atmospheric and space flight. But the company hopes and expects that its success will pave the way for a SpaceShip Three which will take orbital trips.

Orbit is expected to be the gold mine for space tourism.    

Why the Warning Light? 

The light was triggered by a trajectory issue. The ship is designed to glide back to earth following an entry “cone,” like the water circling an open drain in the floor of a bathtub.

The ship must have the right trajectory as the descent begins to allow for the controlled descent, and this in turn requires a steep enough angle on the way up. The yellow light told the two pilots that they weren’t ascending steeply enough. 

They made the correction, and all ended well. Indeed, to casual viewers of the flight as broadcast, and apparently to Branson himself, all appeared to have gone by the book. But it was enough to concern the FAA.

Expected Casualties

The law of large numbers dictates that if space tourism does become a major industry and flights, perhaps with cabins crowded with millionaires, become matters of routine, then there will at some point be casualties. On some day, a space ‘tourist’ will be injured or die in a mishap. 

The FAA is determined that such a day will not happen for a long time. It is very precise about this: it has a formula calculating expected casualties (Ec). An “acceptable” Ec is one per every ten thousand missions. 

The investigation and the grounding of SpaceShip Two is part of the FAA’s attempt to keep space tourism on track for that low Ec. 

Virgin Galactic says that it is “addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions.” 

When they saw the caution light, Mackay and Lasucci had two options: immediate corrective options, or an abortion of the flight. A writer in The New Yorker, citing “multiple sources in the company,” said that the safest choice would have been an abort. But that author, Nicholas Schmidle, also says that a Virgin Galactic spokesperson has disputed that contention.  

On a human level, we can understand that with their famous billionaire boss sitting in the cabin, it would have taken a large quantity of “the right stuff” to opt for a mission-abort at that moment.

A Yellow Light for Investors

The incident has served as a caution light for actual or potential investors in Virgin Galactic. 

News of the mishap has gradually seeped into the markets since early last month, causing a rather steep trajectory of descent for the share price. The price lost 1.3% immediately after the FAA’s announcement.