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FAA Grounds Virgin Galactic Spacecraft Following Branson Flight Mishap

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo while it continues to investigate why the spacecraft flew off course during its high profile July 11 test flight carrying founder Richard Branson into space, even as the company announces another space mission set for the end of the month.

Key Facts

The FAA told Forbes  flights on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will be suspended until the agency approves its final mishap investigation report or determines that the issues related to the incident don’t affect public safety. 

The agency said SpaceShipTwo “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance”—in other words, flew off a carefully prescribed, FAA-approved path— upon returning to Spaceport America during its flight, which is given to ensure that the spacecraft doesn’t collide with any commercial flights.

The FAA’s investigation was prompted by a New Yorker article, which uncovered that the flight went off-course during its descent, triggering a red light warning that the spacecraft wasn’t flying as steeply as it was supposed to be, and that the pilot chose to correct the ship rather than abort its descent, which experts told the New Yorker would have been the safest way to respond.

In response to the FAA’s investigation, Virgin Galactic acknowledged the flight’s trajectory “deviated” from its initial plan for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) due to high altitude winds, but argued that pilots monitored the trajectory to make sure the spacecraft was within “mission parameters.” 

The company also said even though the flight shifted from the original plan, it was a “controlled and intentional flight path” that allowed the spacecraft to land safely, and the change in trajectory did not put the crew in danger. 

Virgin Galactic announced another SpaceShipTwo Unity test flight mission Thursday carrying crew members from the Italian Air Force and National Research Council, aiming to launch at the end of September or early October.

Virgin Galactic did not immediately respond to Forbes request for comment on if the second test flight mission may be affected by the FAA’s decision to bar SpaceShipTwo from operating.

Key Background

Branson made headlines when he made his first trip to space, launching from Spaceport America’s base in New Mexico, along with five other Virgin Galactic employees on July 11. He beat out Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose space company Blue Origin launched its own inaugural space flight just nine days later on July 20. Branson had been working to create technology to launch into space for about 17 years, creating his first spacecraft VSS Enterprise in 2014, which was destroyed during a test flight. The crash ended up killing one pilot and left a second pilot hospitalized. Virgin Galactic’s second spacecraft, which is the one Branson used to get to space in July was created in 2016 and made its first trip to space in 2018 after multiple testing. The July launch was the company’s second test of the spacecraft.

What To Watch Out For

If the FAA’s investigation will affect sales for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space flights which are set to launch in 2022. In August, the company said that it would start selling tickets for $450,000 next year, with multi-seat packages and full-plane reservations available. 

Further Reading

Richard Branson’s 17-Year Journey Into Space: How The Virgin Founder Became First Billionaire To Fly Own Rocket (Forbes)

Virgin Galactic Restarts Spaceflight Ticket Sales For A Stratospheric $450,000 A Pop (Forbes)

Source: Forbes

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