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Setback for Virgin Galactic! SpaceShipTwo GROUNDED as FAA probes Richard Branson’s flight

Two months after Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo landing, the public has learned Richard Branson's flight didn’t go as successfully as it was claimed.
Two months after Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo landing, the public has learned Richard Branson's flight didn’t go as successfully as it was claimed. (REUTERS)

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo went off course during a test flight in July and now has been grounded till FAA allows it to fly again

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo while it completes and signs off on an investigation into the test flight carrying Richard Branson. During the test flight in July, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo veered off course the approved airspace during its descent towards land, the FAA has said. An FAA spokesperson said that the company “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”.

The SpaceShipTwo is a winged suborbital space tourism plane that launches to the edge of space from a carrier aircraft. This plane landed its crew, including Branson and three others, safely on their first test flight, but it wasn’t until this week, two months after the landing, that the public learned the mission didn’t go as successfully as Virgin Galactic had claimed.

A story published in the New Yorker on Wednesday revealed the FAA investigation and found that the two pilots for Unity 22, which was the formal name for the mission, had been alerted to yellow and red warning lights during the ship’s rocket-powered ascent to space. Those warning lights indicated that the spaceship was not ascending vertically enough to be able to free-glide back with enough momentum to land after reaching space. As the spaceship was on its way back, it veered out of the Air Traffic Control airspace prompting an FAA investigation.

“We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions,” a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said in a statement on Thursday, while reiterating that the crew “was never in any danger during the flight”. “We have been working closely with the FAA to support a thorough review and timely resolution of this issue,” the spokesperson added.

Virgin Galactic said late on Wednesday that the FAA probe was going to have “no impact on future test flights” even as the probe remains active. FAA investigations into unexpected in-flight events, like in the case of Virgin Galactic, keep all future flights grounded until the inquiry is complete and necessary corrections are made by the company. However, Virgin Galactic did not respond to a clarification request regarding how this incomplete probe would not affect its next flight, Unity 23, which is scheduled for sometime in October. Unity 23 is going to carry three members of the Italian Air Force as the company’s first revenue-generating mission.

“The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations,” the agency’s statement pointed out, clarifying its role in spaceflight safety as Virgin Galactic started advertising Unity 23 on Thursday.

The Unity 22 mission that took place on July 11 was one of Virgin Galactic’s most celebrated flights. It was essentially a key marketing event to prove that the company’s core spaceship was safe for paying customers to fly. It turned out to be a lavish spectacle as 71-year-old Branson, a “daredevil entrepreneur”, fulfilled his long-held goal to fly to space. Branson was supposed to fly on a later mission but choose to fly on Unity 22 instead just after rival billionaire Jeff Bezos announced he was going to fly his company Blue Origin’s rocket to space.

Amidst all the celebration on July 11, there was no mention of the aircraft's deviation from the approved airspace or of the red light warnings the pilots received. According to the New Yorker story, the FAA was not immediately get notified of the mishap by Virgin Galactic either. Virgin Galactic acknowledged that it didn’t “initially” tell the FAA of SpaceShipTwo’s airspace deviation, and said it’s working with the FAA to update how it alerts the agency to future mishaps.

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