The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has barred Virgin Galactic from flying its SpaceShipTwo until they fully investigate a “mishap” that happened during the flight that carried Richard Branson to the edge of space on 11 July 2021. The FAA, the agency responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry, said that the spaceship “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America” in New Mexico.
“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,” said FAA.
Virgin Galactic launched its first fully crewed flight of its SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity with Richard Branson, who was on the flight to “test the incredible customer experience”. And at the same time, Branson beat other billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in the race to space—as Bezos made his way there on 20 July with Blue Origin.
The Unity rocket launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico, and reached 85km in height—giving its passengers stunning views at the top of its climb and allow them a few minutes to experience about five minutes of weightlessness. However, during deviation, Virgin Galactic said “the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace … for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds).”
According to an article by the New Yorker, pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci “ignored warning lights during the ascent”. Specifically, the pilots brushed off an “entry glide cone warning”—which indicated that Unity wasn’t climbing steeply enough and that the spaceplane wouldn’t have enough energy to glide back to the designated runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Had the pilots reacted to the warning, Richard Branson would probably not have been the first billionaire to reach space—Bezos would have beaten him to the punch instead.
“As we have previously stated, we are working in partnership with the FAA to address the short time that the spaceship 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,” said Virgin Galactic.
The company also said that “at no time were passengers and crew put in any danger”. They also added that FAA representatives were “present” in their control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs.
The grounding of SpaceShipTwo means that another upcoming flight to the edge of space, scheduled for later this month, will likely not take off. That flight planned to carry three crewmembers from the Italian Air Force and National Research Council.