The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded Virgin Galactic missions as it investigates an anomaly in the descent of Sir Richard Branson’s recent space flight, which was supposed to mark the company’s entry into the era of space tourism with a bang. The agency wants to be sure the “mishap” leading to the aircraft’s deviation from its cleared route won’t hurt public safety.
The British billionaire fulfilled a lifetime ambition on July 11 by riding his rocket-powered spacecraft to 86 km in altitude – before Jeff Bezos a few days later. Virgin Galactic at the time assured that everything had gone according to plan. But the New Yorker magazine has revealed how the vehicle flew for a period outside its pre-agreed airspace.
During the flight, a red warning light came on the spaceplane’s dashboard, indicating that it went off its planned trajectory. The flight went off-course, dipping below the intended airspace for one minute and 41 seconds, the FAA said.
In a short statement, the FAA said it is investigating the “July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico.” The company “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,” it added.
The Virgin Galactic spaceship is not a standard rocket taking off vertically. The company uses a huge carrier plane, which takes off from a conventional runway, then drops a spacecraft (SpaceShipTwo) aloft, resembling a large private jet. This then ignites its engines until it exceeds 80 km in altitude – then descends while hovering. Passengers can see the spectacular views of Earth from space and experienced a period of weightlessness for a few minutes before entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
The company just announced its first flight carrying commercial research, with a launch due in late September or early October. That schedule might be in doubt if the FAA probe lasts long enough or prompts significant changes to the plan. The latest FAA ban could also add another delay to Virgin’s first space tourist flights, now slated for early 2022.