The FAA has grounded all Virgin Galactic flights as it investigates a July launch that sent billionaire founder Richard Branson into space.
The probe stems from an article published this week by The New Yorker, which said the Unity 22 ship, carrying Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees, veered off course during its descent back to the ground in New Mexico. The deviation put the ship outside the air traffic control clearance area.
In a statement Thursday, the FAA said, “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.”
The FAA is overseeing the probe; it’s responsible for protecting the public during commercial launches and reentries, according to The Associated Press. Crew safety, on the other hand, is outside its jurisdiction.
Virgin Galactic issued a statement this week disputing what it called “misleading characterizations and conclusions” in The New Yorker’s article. However, the company acknowledged the flight path deviation while insisting that no one was in danger.
“Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols,” the statement reads. “When the vehicle encountered high-altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.
“Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. 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.
“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”
Following the FAA’s investigation announcement, Virgin Galactic issued a second statement.
“As we have previously stated, 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. We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions.”
A former Virgin Galactic test pilot who had previously raised concerns fired back at the company. In a post on Twitter, Mark “Forger” Stucky said: “The most misleading statement today was @virgingalactic’s. The facts are the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within limits, they did nothing of substance to address the trajectory error, & entered Class A airspace without authorization.”
The investigation comes just seven weeks after Branson’s historic flight, which put him into space before billionaire competitor Jeff Bezos, who owns Blue Origin.