FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s core spaceship pending probe into Richard Branson’s flight

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s core spaceship pending probe into Richard Branson’s flight

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is grounded until the Federal Aviation Administration completes and signs off on an investigation into the company’s high-profile test flight carrying Richard Branson, the agency said Thursday. During that July flight, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo veered out of its approved airspace on its descent toward land, the FAA said.

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,” an FAA spokesperson said on Thursday. SpaceShipTwo, a winged suborbital space tourism plane that launches to the edge of space from a carrier aircraft, landed its crew of Branson and three company employees safely. But it wasn’t until this week — nearly two months later — that the public learned the mission wasn’t as successful as the company made it out to be.

A New Yorker story published on Wednesday first revealed the FAA investigation and found that the two pilots for Unity 22, 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 lights, The New Yorker reported, indicated the spaceship wasn’t ascending vertically enough to be able to free-glide back with enough momentum to land after reaching space. As the spaceship was returning, it veered out of its Air Traffic Control airspace, prompting an FAA investigation.

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Branson and Virgin Galactic employees celebrate the Unity 22 mission after returning from space.
Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

“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, 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.”

Virgin Galactic, a publicly traded space tourism company that billionaire Richard Branson founded in 2004, said late Wednesday that the FAA probe “has no impact on future test flights,” even as the probe remains active. FAA investigations into unexpected in-flight events, like Virgin Galactic’s, keep future flights grounded until the agency’s inquiry is complete and any potential corrections are made by the company. Virgin Galactic didn’t respond to a request for clarification on how it concluded the incomplete probe wouldn’t impact its next test flight, Unity 23, which is slated for sometime in the next month. That flight will 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 added, clarifying its role in spaceflight safety as Virgin Galactic started advertising Unity 23 on Thursday.

The Unity 22 mission on July 11th was one of Virgin Galactic’s most publicized and celebrated flights. It was a key marketing event to prove the company’s core spaceship is safe for paying customers to fly, and a lavish spectacle as Branson, a 71-year-old daredevil entrepreneur, fulfilled his long-held goal to get a taste of space. Branson was poised to fly on a later mission but opted to fly on Unity 22 instead shortly after rival billionaire Jeff Bezos announced he’d fly his company Blue Origin’s rocket to space.

The mission event was filled with theatrics, some of which were misleading: A video that made it look like Branson biked to Spaceport America on the morning of his spaceflight was actually pre-recorded a week prior. “We regret the error and any confusion it may have caused,” the company told Reuters.

And amid all the pomp and circumstance, which included a live performance from Khalid and Branson popping a bottle of champagne on stage upon returning from space, there was no mention of the aircraft’s deviation from its approved airspace, or anything about the red light warnings seen by the pilots. According to the New Yorker story, the FAA didn’t immediately get notified of the mishap by Virgin Galactic either. The company acknowledged 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.

Update, September 2nd, 5:45PM ET: Adds a statement from Virgin Galactic

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