US regulator grounds Virgin Galactic space planes as it investigates July flight

  • Flight to edge of space veered off course during descent
  • Virgin criticizes ‘misleading characterizations’ of incident

Virgin Galactic space planes, which the British billionaire Richard Branson used to launch his journey into space in July, have been temporarily grounded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) while it conducts an investigation into an issue that occurred during the 11 July flight.

“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 FAA said in a statement to the Guardian on Thursday.

The announcement came shortly after an investigation was initiated into the 11 July incident with Branson’s flight on his own spaceship, which “deviated from its air traffic control clearance” as it was landing back on American soil, according to the FAA.

The Guardian has contacted the Virgin Galactic for comment on this update.

Branson’s flight was surrounded by much fanfare and criticism, with many perceiving it as a symbol of wealth gaps and questioning the carbon footprint of the missions. It came almost at the same time that fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos flew into space in his own craft.

The problem with Branson’s flight arose when a yellow light flashed on the console of the vehicle when it was landing, a sign that the flight was “too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical”, a New Yorker report said on Wednesday.

In a statement to the Guardian, Virgin Galactic denied claims made in the report, terming it a host of “misleading characterizations” of the incident.

“Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols,” read the statement. “When the vehicle encountered high-altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.”

The statement acknowledged that while the flight eventually did divert from its assigned path, it was “a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space”.

In response to the FAA’s investigation, the company pointed out that it followed its required regulations, such as maintaining its path within the lateral confines, but it did drop below its assigned altitude for one minute and 41 seconds “as a result of the trajectory adjustment”.

“At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs,” the company said in its statement, adding that it was working with the FAA over future flights.

The FAA did not comment on Virgin Galactic’s response, and reiterated that the issue was still under investigation.

Branson was the first among his billionaire contemporaries such as Amazon founder Bezos and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk to launch into this so-called “space race”. Musk is yet to make his journey, and has put down a deposit with Virgin Galactic for a future flight.

The FAA investigation could hit the marketing of future flights for Virgin Galactic, a brand Branson has been building since 2004. He announced in August that its flights would be available to the public for $450,000 as a starting price, echoing his mission to “make space more accessible to all”.

Samira Sadeque

The GuardianTramp

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