Reckless Flight Raises Concerns On Testing Protocol

FAA grounds SpaceShipTwo

Writing for on September 2nd, Jeff Foust detailed the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement of an investigation made concerning the spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. The announcement came a day after The New Yorker broke a story claiming that two Virgin Galactic pilots ignored a warning message during a July 11th test flight of the SpaceShipTwo that took the craft to the edge of space. According to sources within the spaceflight firm, the correct course of action for this warning would be to abort the mission. In a separate statement, Virgin Galactic asserted that the pilots responded appropriately, claiming that there had been “misleading characterizations” of the event. This statement was refuted in turn by the company’s former test flight director, Mark “Forger” Stucky, who was let go a week after the incident.

This event highlights that even in the absence of an outside attacker, space missions can be compromised by their own personnel, perhaps by pressure to deliver results or thrill-seeking ambition. In a broader sense, the issue is two-fold: the critical systems aboard the spacecraft were subjected to the possible misjudgement of the pilots, and the company’s systems were unable to reconcile the viewpoints of internal critics, leading to external investigation. On-board the spacecraft, various cyber-physical systems could assist in assuring safety by regulating the relationship between the craft and pilot. On the ground, the results of this investigation may reveal if the FAA is able to properly handle similar situations in the future.

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