Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic has been forced to ground its rocket after a part fell off mid-flight.
The company said an “alignment pin” had detached during its rocket’s latest trip on January 26, prompting an investigation by American regulators.
The pin was used to line up the two halves of Virgin Galactic’s space craft – a twin-fuselage “mothership” plane and a rocket that carries tourists to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic’s plane lifts its rocket to around 40,000 feet, which is then dropped and blasts off towards space, allowing its passengers to experience a brief period of weightlessness.
The company said the problem had been spotted during a “standard post-flight review” and that “at no time was there a safety impact to mothership, spaceship, crew on board or people on the ground”.
It added the pin “performed as designed” during the 45-minute flight, its first in 2024, and only came off after the rocket, which was carrying six people, had detached.
However, the company will now be forced to ground its spacecraft and delay future missions until it gets the green light from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
A spokesman for the agency said: “The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic-led mishap investigation to ensure the company complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements.”
Founded by Sir Richard nearly 20 years ago, Virgin Galactic began regular space tourism flights in 2023 after multiple delays and disaster, including the dramatic crash of one of its test craft in 2014 which claimed the life of the co-pilot.
The company has already said it intends to reduce the frequency of flights with its current spacecraft as it attempts to conserve cash and accelerate work on a new rocket, which will enter service in 2026.
In November, Virgin Galactic, which is listed in New York, said it would cut around 18pc of its staff – or 185 people – in a bid to cut costs.
In December, Sir Richard, who was a passenger on a Virgin Galactic space flight in 2021, appeared to rule out injecting further funding into the business in an interview with the Financial Times.
He said: “We don’t have the deepest pockets after Covid, and Virgin Galactic has got $1bn, or nearly. It should, I believe, have sufficient funds to do its job on its own.”
Virgin Galactic’s turbulent journey from failed tests to space-flight milestone