Virgin Galactic: closer to disaster than we knew

Rio Grande Foundation has long opposed the New Mexico Spaceport. The facility, which opened nearly a decade ago and has yet to be used for its intended purpose (space tourism) was tailor-made for one company: Virgin Galactic.

Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic has put together what can only be described as a spotty safety record (and that’s before the company launches its first space tourist). We knew about the dead test pilot back in 2014. And recently the company had to abort a test launch because the engine failed to ignite. Now, according to revelations made in a soon-to-be-printed book, the company narrowly averted disaster back in February of 2019.

According to the Washington Post, Todd Ericson, a test pilot who also served as a vice president for safety and test said, “The structural integrity of the entire stabilizer was compromised (during the test), I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”

The Post article further notes that: the regulations governing private space companies are relatively loose — the Federal Aviation Administration ensures the safety of people and property on the ground, but there is merely an “informed consent” standard for the passengers, who need only acknowledge the risks as if they were skydiving or bungee jumping.

RGF’s Paul Gessing interviewed private space expert and proprietor of the website Parabolic Arc, Doug Messier, on two separate occasions about ongoing issues at Spaceport America for the Tipping Point NM podcast here and here. Messier raised safety concerns about Virgin Galactic’s technology during both interviews.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity craft during a supersonic flight test in May 2018.