Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo grounded by FAA for investigation


In a major setback, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo has been grounded by the FAA until further notice to fly it again. The spaceship made headlines when it went off course during a test flight in July.


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo while it completes and signs off on an investigation into the test flight carrying Richard Branson. During the July test flight, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo veered off course the approved airspace during its descent towards land, the FAA has said.


An FAA spokesperson said that 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”.


The SpaceShipTwo is a winged suborbital space tourism plane that launches to the edge of space from a carrier aircraft. This plane apparently landed its crew, including Branson and three others, safely on their first test flight, but it was brought to the public’s notice, two months after the landing, that the mission didn’t go as successfully as Virgin Galactic had claimed.


A New Yorker article published on Wednesday revealed the FAA investigation. The investigation found out that the two pilots for Unity 22, which was the formal name for the mission, had been alerted to yellow and red warning lights during the ship’s rocket-powered ascent to space. Those warning lights indicated that the spaceship was not ascending vertically enough to be able to free-glide back with enough momentum to land after reaching space. As the spaceship was on its way back, it veered out of the Air Traffic Control airspace prompting an FAA investigation.


Virgin Galactic however said on Wednesday that the FAA probe was going to have “no impact on future test flights” even as the investigation remains active. FAA investigations into unexpected in-flight events, like in the case of Virgin Galactic, keep all future flights grounded until the inquiry is complete and necessary corrections are made by the company.


Virgin Galactic’s next flight, Unity 23, is scheduled for sometime in October. The flight is going to carry three members of the Italian Air Force as the company’s first revenue-generating mission. It remains to be seen if the investigation gets completed by that time.


“The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations,” the agency’s statement pointed out, clarifying its role in spaceflight safety as Virgin Galactic started advertising Unity 23 on Thursday.