Virgin Galactic Grounded After Alignment Pin Detaches

The agency confirmed it opened a mishap investigation and no public injuries or damage had been reported.

Virgin Galactic’s ‘Galactic 06’ flight launched January 26. [Courtesy: Virgin Galactic]

Virgin Galactic flights are grounded amid an FAA mishap investigation after the space tourism company reported a detached alignment pin to the safety agency following a recent suborbital mission.

The January 26 "Galactic 06" mission was the company's 11th spaceflight and its first with four private astronauts occupying seats aboard its spaceplane VSS Unity.

According to Virgin Galactic, it was while conducting a routine post-flight review that it found an alignment pin had detached from the launch pylon of the mothership, VMS Eve.

"The company notified the [FAA] on January 31 in accordance with regulations and is conducting a review in conjunction with the FAA," Virgin Galactic said in a statement. "'Galactic 06' was a safe and successful flight that was conducted in accordance with Virgin Galactic’s rigorous flight procedures and protocols. At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board." 

The alignment pin ensures the mothership and the spaceship are aligned when they are mated on the ground before launch, Virgin Galactic said.

"During mated flight, as the vehicles climb towards release altitude, the alignment pin helps transfer drag and other forces from the spaceship to the shear pin fitting assembly and into the pylon and center wing of the mothership," the company said. "The shear pin fitting assembly remained both attached and intact on the mothership with no damage. 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. The alignment pin and shear pin fitting assembly performed as designed during the mated portion of the flight, and only the alignment pin detached after the spaceship was released from the mothership."

FAA confirmed in a statement that it had opened a mishap investigation and no public injuries or damage had been reported.

"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," FAA said.

The mishap investigation aims to determine the root cause of the event, as well as to identify what actions are needed to prevent it from happening again, the agency said.

"The FAA will be involved in every step of the mishap investigation process and must approve Virgin Galactic’s final report, including the corrective actions," the agency said. "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."

Virgin Galactic said it "will provide a further update at the completion of the review," prior to confirming the flight window of its upcoming "Galactic 07" mission planned for the second quarter of this year.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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