The US air regulator has grounded Virgin Galactic until it finalises a probe into a deviation from the flight path experienced by the company’s SpaceShipTwo on its voyage to the edge of space in July.
“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,” the Federal Aviation Agency said in a statement.
The 11 July flight carried entrepreneur Richard Branson and five other Virgin Galactic employees to a height of more than 50 miles (80km) after launching from a base in the New Mexico desert.
The company last week announced plans for a scientific mission with members of the Italian Air Force in late September or early October, but the trip must now await the FAA’s decision.
Virgin Galactic previously acknowledged that the flight dropped “below the altitude of the airspace … for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds)”, but it said the trajectory was “controlled and intentional”.
“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico,” the company said in a statement provided to Silicon UK.
“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 centres or cause a hazard to the public.”
The company said pilots encountered unexpectedly high winds at high altitude and took the actions necessary to complete a safe climb into space and return to Earth.
The New Yorker earlier reported that the pilots of the 11 July flight received cockpit warnings about the shallower-than-planned trajectory.
This could have led to the flight being aborted, but the pilots instead chose to correct the flight path, according to the report.
At the time of the New Yorker article’s publication last Thursday Virgin Galactic said the article contained “mischaracterisations”. The magazine said it stands by its account.
Following the planned Italian Air Force mission Virgin Galactic intends to carry out maintenance on SpaceShipTwo and the carrier plane Eve, with space missions intended to resume in the middle of next year, beginning with one further test flight.
The firm wants to begin commercial flights in the second half of 2022 and began selling tickets last month starting at $450,000 (£325,000) per seat.
A number of years ago Virgin Galactic had previously offered tickets to some 600 individuals who put down deposits for seats costing $200,000-250,000.
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