Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker »

The rocket motor on Virgin Galactic’s ship is programmed to burn for a minute. On July 11th, it had a few more seconds to go when a red light also appeared on the console: an entry glide-cone warning. This was a big deal. I once sat in on a meeting, in 2015, during which the pilots on the July 11th mission—Dave Mackay, a former Virgin Atlantic pilot and veteran of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, and Mike Masucci, a retired Air Force pilot—and others discussed procedures for responding to an entry glide-cone warning. C. J. Sturckow, a former marine and nasa astronaut, said that a yellow light should “scare the shit out of you,” because “when it turns red it’s gonna be too late”; Masucci was less concerned about the yellow light but said, “Red should scare the crap out of you.” Based on pilot procedures, Mackay and Masucci had basically two options: implement immediate corrective action, or abort the rocket motor. According to multiple sources in the company, the safest way to respond to the warning would have been to abort. (A Virgin Galactic spokesperson disputed this contention.)

Aborting at that moment, however, would have dashed Branson’s hopes of beating his rival Bezos, whose flight was scheduled for later in the month, into space. Mackay and Masucci did not abort. Whether or not their decision was motivated by programmatic pressures and the hopes of their billionaire bankroller sitting in the back remains unclear. Virgin Galactic officials told me that the firm’s top priority is the safety of its crew and passengers. Branson, however, is known for his flamboyance and showmanship. On the morning of the flight, Branson, an outspoken environmentalist, appeared on the “livestream” arriving at the spaceport on a bicycle. But this turned out to be false: Branson did not pedal to work that day; the bike ride was filmed a week earlier and then made to look like it happened that morning. When Reuters called out the company, an anonymous official said, “We regret the error and any confusion it may have caused.”

Update »

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft during investigation of Branson flight issues – CNBC