FAA: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Grounded Until Investigation Completed

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said today that Virgin Galactic cannot launch its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle until the agency completes an investigation into an anomaly that occurred on a flight test that carried company founder Richard Branson on July 11.

“The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations. The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” the agency said in a statement. “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.”

A story in The New Yorker on Wednesday said SpaceShipTwo deviated from its planned trajectory during a flight that carried Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees on a suborbital spaceflight. The story said the anomaly was serious, although Virgin Galactic has downplayed the incident in a statement and disputed some of the characterizations made in the story.

The news was followed on Thursday by an announcement from Virgin Galactic of a planned suborbital research flight scheduled for late September or early October. That announcement was followed by the FAA statement about the ship being grounded until the the investigation is completed.

The FAA statement prompted another statement by Virgin Galactic that reiterated points made in its earlier statement.

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. Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. 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 centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs.

“We have been working closely with the FAA to support a thorough review and timely resolution of this issue.”

The ongoing investigation does not preclude Virgin Galactic proceeding with its planned research flight as scheduled if the investigation is wrapped up and any required corrective actions (if any) are taken in time. The FAA did not provide a timeline for completing its work.