Virgin Galactic grounded by FAA investigation into off-course flight

Virgin Galactic flights have been grounded while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigates its previous flight, which carried founder Richard Branson to the edge of space on July 11.

There were issues with the trajectory of that flight that have only recently come to light, as detailed in a New Yorker article that was published this week. The article states that, during the flight, the SpaceShipTwo craft VSS Unity veered off course and pilots saw a caution light that their flight path was too shallow. Although the flight took off and landed without any issues, this report suggests that had the pilots not managed to correct the issue, they could have had to make a risky emergency landing.

Virgin Galactic's spaceplane soaring to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic

Now, the FAA is investigating the incident and has announced that Virgin Galactic can’t fly its ship until the investigation is complete.

“The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico,” the agency said in a statement. “Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety.”

In response, Virgin Galactic put out a statement saying that its flight had been safe and there was no risk to passengers or crew. “Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols,” it said. “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.”

The company did acknowledge the trajectory issue though, saying, “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.”

Virgin Galactic had hoped to fly its next Unity mission in late September or early October this year, carrying three private crew members in its first commercial mission. It’s not yet clear whether this flight will be able to go ahead as planned or whether the FAA investigation will force it to be postponed.

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