The Federal Aviation Administration has declared its satisfaction with the measures taken by Virgin Galactic after a minor logistical incident during billionaire Richard Branson's flight to the edge of space on July 11, according to a recent press release from the company.
During the flight, SpaceShipOne had drifted outside of its mandated airspace, which is designated to protect local populations and industry from potential disaster should the worst happen. It didn't, but the FAA is happy with Virgin Galactic's corrections, which means the third space baron is back on the flight list.
FAA had grounded Virgin Galactic after flight issues
Virgin Galactic completed its troubleshooting process with air traffic control clearance, in addition to real-time mission comms, which means the firm can finally resume flights to space with a full FAA license. The regulator "required Virgin Galactic to implement changes on how it communicates to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe," according to an FAA statement reported in Gizmodo. It also said Virgin Galactic "made the required changes and can return to flight operations." This comes two months after the incident during the July 11 launch of the VSS Unity, which lifted Virgin Galactic's Founder Richard Branson and three others, along with two pilots, to the very edge of outer space. But while the flight seemed to go smoothly, the FAA subsequently grounded Virgin Galactic's duo of SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes after an article published in the New Yorker revealed some inconsistencies in the flight.
The New Yorker article argued that the pilots had ignored warning lights while they ascended within the VSS Unity, risking a landing at an undesignated runway. And, most crucially, the article claimed that Branson's spaceplane had veered outside of its designated airspace for nearly two minutes. The FAA later confirmed this allegation. The author of the article, Nicholas Schmidle, also learned from sources that the Virgin Galactic flight's safest alternative at this junction was to abort the mission. Barring that, the pilots continued to fly at full-throttle speeds for the entire minute needed to ascend to roughly 53 miles (86 km) above sea level. That is technically in outer space. After achieving this goalpost, the vehicle glided down for a leisurely landing at its designated runway, and made a successful return to Spaceport American, in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic's history suggests future mishaps are not unlikely
If the pilots had aborted their flight, Branson would have missed his bid to become the first billionaire to enter space, a feat that would likely have been claimed by Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos, who reached the edge of space in his New Shepard rocket weeks later. Following the article, the FAA entered a formal inquiry with Virgin Galactic on August 11, grounding the firm's spaceplanes. The regulatory agency later determined that Unity "deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space," adding that Virgin Galactic had "failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required," according to the statement reported by Gizmodo.
In a press release shared with IE, Virgin Galactic's Michael Colglazier stressed the company's total commitment to safety, but the company has seen tragic deaths during tests, along with inauthentic PR campaigns, and faced allegations of deteriorating safety culture. Suffice to say that while Branson's firm is cleared to fly, this probably won't be the last incident to land the company in trouble.
This was a developing story and was regularly updated as new information became available.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said this news came "two years" after Branson's flight. This has been corrected to reflect the fact that his flight was two months ago.