Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, has been grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after its recent spaceflight, which carried Branson and five others to the edge of space, veered from its planned trajectory.
On July 11, Branson and his crewmates launched to suborbital space, some 50 miles above New Mexico, on a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane called VSS Unity. It was the vehicle’s first fully crewed trip to space and the first instance of a company founder traveling to space in his own spacecraft, a milestone that was repeated just nine days later by Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who flew to suborbital space on July 20. Ahead of the flights, the two billionaires sparred openly over bragging rights.
As a result of this flight’s deviation, which saw the craft continue to fly at Mach 3 with a red warning light on rather than abort for safety, the FAA announced on Thursday that it would not allow Virgin Galactic to conduct any more spaceflights until the completion of its investigation into the “mishap.” The investigation includes determining whether the flight endangered public safety.
“The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations,” Steve Kulm, a public affairs specialist at the FAA, said in an emailed statement to VICE. “The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.”
“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,” he added.
Barney Gimbel, a representative of Virgin Galactic, confirmed in an email to VICE that the vehicle “dropped below its permitted altitude during the Unity 22 flight.”
“We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions,” the company said in Gimbel’s emailed statement. “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.”
In a critical stage of the VSS Unity flight, a yellow warning light flashed in the cockpit to alert the pilots that the vehicle was off course, according to a report published Wednesday in the New Yorker. The warning indicated that the ship’s flight path was too shallow, meaning that the nose cone was not positioned at the right vertical position, which could potentially jeopardize the vehicle’s landing back at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport.
The problem escalated as the light switched to red, which the New Yorker described as “a big deal” that necessitated either immediate corrective action or a full mission abort. The pilots opted not to cancel the spaceflight, and the vehicle ultimately performed a safe landing, though it strayed from its designated airspace. It’s unclear at this time whether Branson had any role in the decision to continue the flight.
“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public,” Virgin Galactic said in its statement. “FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs.”
The investigation may delay the next test flight of VSS Unity, which was scheduled to fly in late September or early October.