US regulator grounds Virgin Galactic fleet over Branson space flight anomaly

Virgin Galactic updates

The US Federal Aviation Administration has grounded Virgin Galactic’s fleet and launched an investigation after learning that the vehicle that carried Richard Branson into space in July veered beyond its designated airspace for nearly two minutes.

The regulator said on Thursday that the spacecraft had dropped below protected airspace for one minute and 41 seconds of its descent to New Mexico, during a landmark mission that saw founder Branson beat rival Jeff Bezos in a tight race into space.

“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. 

Virgin Galactic acknowledged the investigation, adding: “At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”

The FAA’s statement followed a story published in The New Yorker on Wednesday, which reported that a yellow caution light appeared on the ship’s console shortly after take-off, warning the six passengers that their flight path was too shallow.

This was followed by a more serious red warning light, the report said, citing unnamed people in the company who added that the appropriate response to such a red light is to abort the flight.

The magazine said that Virgin, whose mission continued despite the warning lights, “did not initially notify” regulators of its deviation.

Virgin Galactic’s stock fell 2 per cent on the news. The company disputed the characterisation of events in The New Yorker, which had also speculated that aborting the mission “would have dashed Branson’s hopes of beating his rival”, Amazon founder Bezos, into space.

On July 11, after the space flight had landed, CNN asked Branson: “Is there anything that needs to be addressed before it flies again?”

The billionaire deferred the question to Michael Moses, the company’s president. Moses said: “Everything looked perfect in real time . . . No issues whatsoever.”

Despite the investigation, the space tourism company said on Thursday it planned to proceed with its “Unity 23” commercial mission in a few weeks. The missions involves sending six people, including members of the Italian Air Force, to the edge of space to study microgravity.

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