The US Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday that Virgin Galactic cannot launch anyone into space again until an investigation is complete into a ‘mishap’ that occurred during founder Richard Branson’s July flight.
The ban came as Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch three Italian researchers to the edge of space in just a few weeks.
The FAA said the rocket ship carrying Branson and five other Virgin Galactic employees veered off course during its descent back to its runway. This deviation put the ship outside the air traffic control clearance area.
The FAA is overseeing the investigation as it is responsible for protecting the public during commercial launches and re-entries. The safety of any crew, however, is outside of its jurisdiction. Virgin Galactic insisted yesterday that Branson and everyone else on board were never in any added danger.
Crew and passengers not in danger
The FAA’s statement read: “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.”
Virgin Galactic did acknowledge that the space plane dropped below the protected airspace for one minute and 41 seconds. The spacecraft's free-flying portion of the up-and-down flight lasted about 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 53.5 miles (86 kilometers).
The company added that high-altitude wind caused the change in flight path and insisted the two pilots “responded appropriately.” In a statement, it said the flight was “a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols.”
In another statement also yesterday, Virgin Galactic added that “at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public.” We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions,” the company said.
Virgin Galactic operates out of Spaceport America in the southern New Mexico desert.
The Space Race continues
Branson ended up beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos — founder of Amazon as well as rocket company Blue Origin — into space by nine days. Bezos launched July 20 with three others from West Texas.
Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are vying to sell seats to tourists, scientists and anyone else looking to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic's rocketship is launched from an airplane, while Blue Origin's capsule is hoisted by a reusable New Shepard rocket.
Virgin Galactic is aiming for late September or early October for its next flight, whereas Blue Origin has yet to announce a date for its next passenger flight, other than to say it will be soon.