FAA Indefinitely Grounds Virgin Galactic Due to Branson's 'Red Light' Warning

'Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight".
Brad Bergan
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.Virgin Galactic

The Federal Aviation Administration officially grounded all Virgin Galactic flights indefinitely. The flight ban will continue until the completion of an ongoing investigation of the company's July 11 crewed flight, according to an initial report from CNBC.

"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," read the FAA statement, in the report.

Looks like Richard Branson's "red light" issue may be more serious than initially thought.

Virgin Galactic responds to FAA's new ruling

A Virgin Galactic spokesperson responded to Interesting Engineering shortly after our initial reporting went live. "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," they began. "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."

While admitting that Branson's flight on Unity 22 did deviate from the flight path, Virgin Galactic emphasized that no one was ever in any danger. "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," added the spokesperson. "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."

Virgin Galactic's Branson flight veered out of cleared airspace

In conversation with CNBC, a representative noted that the FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation operations, and that the FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of the July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico and in which SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.

While many viewers of Branson's historic spaceflight may have considered it a textbook flight, it was anything but. While ascending, a warning light activated during spacecraft VSS Unity's rocket engine burn, indicating that the vehicle had left its intended trajectory.

And on Wednesday, the FAA said the warning light had caused Branson's spacecraft to deviate "from its Air Traffic Control clearance", veering outside its official airspace for 1 minute and 41 seconds. First to the issue was The New Yorker, which focused on concerns surrounding Virgin Galactic's safety and technology. This was especially reflected in the parting ways of the company's former Flight Test Director Mark "Forger" Stucky, who may have been fired via video call after Branson's first flight. The report highlighted how Stucky had often made internal warnings within Virgin Galactic that raised concerns about the firm's flight tests.

Virgin Galactic's Unity 23 flight test grounded indefinitely

However, Virgin Galactic strongly disputed "the misleading characterizations and conclusions in the New Yorker article," in the CNBC report and emphasized the lack of danger.

While the nascent space tourism firm admitted that VSS Unity's trajectory was forced off course by "high altitude winds", it argued that its "pilots responded appropriately."

Virgin Galactic had hoped for another spaceflight test later this month or early October with six crew members aboard. But now it might be indefinitely delayed.

In the immediate aftermath of the New Yorker's Wednesday report, the FAA had claimed it was only investigating the "red light" issue from Branson's flight. But a few hours after Virgin Galactic revealed the crew for its forthcoming Unity 23 spaceflight test, slated to carry three Italian Air Force officers, the FAA released an updated statement effectively grounding this flight until issues that arose during the Unity 22 flight are thoroughly checked out.

This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.

This article was also updated to include a statement from a spokesperson representing Virgin Galactic.

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