A Wednesday piece in The New Yorker said that almost one minute into SpaceShipTwo space plane VSS Unity's powered flight, a yellow caution light had appeared on its console – an indication that the spacecraft was heading off-course.
"The light was a warning to the pilots that their flight path was too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical," it read. "If they didn't fix it, they risked a perilous emergency landing in the desert on their descent."
The New Yorker piece also said that a red warning light had appeared – "an entry glide-cone warning" – on the console as well.
"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,)" it added.
This account of events, according to the magazine, is based on discussions with "eight people knowledgeable about the program."
However, in a statement sent to Space.com on Friday, Virgin Galactic officials pushed back on the report.
"We dispute the misleading characterizations and conclusions in the New Yorker article," the commercial spaceflight company wrote in an e-mailed statement. "The safety of our crew and passengers is Virgin Galactic's top priority. Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system, our test flight program and our rigorous pilot training protocol."
That said, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson told The New Yorker that the craft had flown outside of its Air Traffic Control clearance for a minute and forty-one seconds and that it did not immediately notify the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
A spokesperson for the agency reportedly told the publication that an investigation into the matter is "ongoing."
An FAA spokesperson told Fox Business on Thursday that Virgin Galactic is conducting the investigation under FAA oversight and that the vehicle had encountered high altitude winds that changed its trajectory, dropping it below its permitted altitude.
Even so, Virgin Galactic told Space.com on Wednesday that that craft did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace.
"As a result of the trajectory adjustment, the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace that is protected for Virgin Galactic missions for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before reentering restricted airspace that is protected all the way to the ground for Virgin Galactic missions," their spokesperson said in a statement.
"At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public," they told Space.com.
While "multiple sources in the company" told The New Yorker that the "safest way to respond to the warning would have been to abort," according to the same spokesperson there was never any danger due to the pilots' decisive actions.
"Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols," the statement read. "When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures."
"Although the flight's ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico," said the spokesperson. "At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory."
Nevertheless, there have been concerns over safety with SpaceShipTwo missions in the past and a test flight killed one pilot and injured another in 2014.
The New Yorker also cited incidents in 2018 and 2019.
The FAA previously told Fox Business that Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo may not fly again until it has government approval and confirmation that "the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety."
Virgin Galactic also told Fox Business that no one was ever in any danger and that the SpaceShipTwo never traveled over any population centers and never caused any hazard to the public.
"We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions," their spokesperson said. "Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico."
It was not immediately clear whether the investigation would interfere with Virgin Galactic's next flight, tentatively scheduled for late September or early October.
Fox Business' James Leggate and The Associated Press contributed to this report.