The VMS Eve carrier aircraft can be seen in the background shortly after the release of VSS Unity, igniting its engine and accelerating during the company’s fourth space test, Unity 22, with founder Richard Branson on July 11, 2021.
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded Virgin Galactic Thursday as federal regulators investigate the company’s previous spaceflight that carried founder Sir Richard Branson.
“Virgin Galactic will not be allowed to return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final accident investigation report or determines that the issues related to the accident do not affect public safety,” the FAA said in a statement to CNBC.
“The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during the launch and re-entry of commercial spacecraft. The FAA is overseeing Virgin Galactic’s investigation into the July 11th SpaceShipTwo disaster that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico and has returned to Spaceport America, “the regulator added.
Virgin Galactic’s shares, which had previously risen up to 5% in trading, went negative and fell more than 5% following the FAA’s announcement.
Disaster on July 11th
Sir Richard Branson, left, together with the mission specialists Sirisha Bandla and Beth Moses in space on July 11, 2021.
Branson’s space flight was not as flawless as it was felt by viewers of the live broadcast on Virgin Galactic. During the ascent, while the rocket motor of the VSS Unity spacecraft was igniting, a warning light came on because the vehicle was leaving its flight path.
The FAA confirmed in a statement to CNBC on Wednesday that the warning light was due to the spacecraft “deviating from its air traffic control clearance” and flying outside of designated airspace for 1 minute and 41 seconds.
The New Yorker first reported on the problem that arose during Branson’s space journey. The report highlighted concerns about Virgin Galactic’s technology and safety culture, highlighted by the recent departure of flight test director Mark “Forger” Stucky, who was reportedly fired after a video call after Branson’s space flight. The New Yorker emphasized that Stucky had repeatedly issued warnings internally at Virgin Galactic about the safety of the company’s flight tests.
Virgin Galactic denied “the misleading characterizations and conclusions in the New York article” in a statement to CNBC on Wednesday.
“As a result of this trajectory change, passengers and crew were never in danger,” said Virgin Galactic.
In addition, the space tourism company said that VSS Unity’s trajectory was off course due to “high altitude winds” but that “our pilots reacted appropriately in our control room during the flight and during post-flight debriefings.”
Italian Air Force spaceflight next
Virgin Galactic was planning its next space test in late September through early October with a crew of six – two pilots and four passengers – who would be on board.
According to the New Yorker’s report released on Wednesday, the FAA initially only said it was investigating the incident. But Virgin Galactic released a press release Thursday morning to introduce the crew for their next space test called Unity 23, which will carry three members of the Italian Air Force.
A few hours later, the FAA issued an updated statement – and sat the spacecraft on the ground until the issues identified on Flight Unity 22 are resolved.
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