Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism flights grounded after part falls off during flight

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been grounded after a small part came off the mothership of its space plane, Unity, on its most recent space tourism flight.

The company said an alignment pin detached from the launch pylon of its mothership, Eve, during its latest flight, ‘Galactic 06’, on January 26.

It said it became aware of the detached pin during routine post-flight reviews and “at no time” did the missing pin “pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board”.

On board ‘Galactic 06’ were four private astronauts from three different countries and two crew.

It costs $US450,000 (about $690,000) for a ticket to travel on Unity.

Virgin Galactic is now working with the US Federal Aviation Administration to review the issue.

The FAA said an investigation would need to be completed and any necessary corrective actions taken before the company can return to flight.

“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,” An FAA statement said, 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.”

CNN reported while the FAA is tasked with giving the final go-ahead for commercial companies to launch rockets and spacecraft, its role is only to analyse the potential risk that a flight poses to the public, people or property, and not the danger to passengers on board.

Virgin Galactic explained the alignment pin helps ensure the spaceship is aligned to the mothership when mating the vehicles on the ground.

“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 centre wing of the mothership,” a statement 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.”

‘Galactic 06’ was released at 44,493 feet.

On board was Franz Haider from Austria, Lina Borozdina from Ukraine and the US state of Nevada, Robie Vaughn from Texas, and Neil Kornswiet from California.

VSS Unity was commanded by C.J. Sturckow with pilot Nicola Pecile, while Michael Masucci commanded mothership VMS Eve with pilot Dan Alix.

Virgin Galactic said it would provide a further update at the completion of the review with FAA and would confirm the flight window for the next ‘Galactic 07’ flight, which is planned for the second quarter of this year.

Virgin Galactic launched its first space flight for tourists last year.