FAA Closes Virgin Galactic Investigation, Clears SpaceShipTwo to Fly as Company’s Licensing & Compliance Officer Departs

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • SpaceShipTwo deviated from assigned airspace during July 11 flight test
  • FAA says Virgin Galactic failed to inform agency about deviation
  • Virgin Galactic’s licensing and compliance officer announces his departure from company

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration has closed an investigation into Virgin Galactic that resulted in the grounding of the company’s only suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle after the ship deviated from its assigned airspace during a July flight test with the company’s founder on board. The decision clears the way for another flight test planned for mid-October.

The FAA announcement on Wednesday came one day after Virgin Galactic’s head of flight licensing and compliance — the company’s main liaison to the FAA — announced he was leaving the company after 8.5 years.

“The investigation found the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space,” the agency said in a statement. “The FAA also found Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required. Virgin Galactic was not allowed to conduct flight operations as the investigation was ongoing.

“The FAA required Virgin Galactic to implement changes on how it communications to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe. Virgin Galactic has made the required changes and can return to flight operations,” the statement added.

Gregory Fredenburg, who as head of flight licensing & compliance at Virgin Galactic was responsible for informing the FAA of the deviation, announced his departure from the company the day prior to the agency’s decision to close the investigation. He gave no reason for his departure in the upbeat announcement.

It was a great 8+ years with Virgin Galactic. I was fortunate enough in my role to help Virgin Galactic and the commercial space industry achieve some firsts relative to FAA authorizations. As the main focal for all FAA activities for Virgin Galactic along with a lot of help from my teammates, Virgin Galactic is the first commercial space company to receive a commercial license to operate a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) system for real vehicles and then spend almost five years testing that system and providing data and information to the FAA to get that license updated in June of 2021 to allow the carriage of paying customers, AKA in FAA lingo as Space Flight Participants (SFP).

In a press release, Virgin Galactic said it would take the following corrective actions:

Updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights. Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.

Additional steps into the Company’s flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.

Virgin Galactic did not explain why it failed to tell FAA about why SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity deviated into Class A airspace for 1 minute 41 seconds during its flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Class A airspace is largely used by commercial airlines, cargo carriers and other aircraft.

The FAA decision clears the way for Virgin Galactic to fly three Italian researchers aboard VSS Unity in mid-October. Two of the researchers are Italian Air Force officers while the other is a civilian.

After that flight, VSS Unity and its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, VMS Eve, will undergo about 8 months of modifications and upgrades. A final flight test will be conducted next summer, with the first commercial tourism flight following by the end of next September.