FAA grounds Virgin Galactic amidst investigation into July mission

Remember that story we posted earlier today about Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight scheduled to launch in September?

We may have spoken too soon. This afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was grounding all Virgin Galactic flights until further notice, pending the results of the investigation into the company’s July 11 crewed flight.

“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.”

While the July 11 mission was completed with no injuries to staff or crew, including the company’s billionaire founder Richard Branson, it was recently uncovered that the spaceplane deviated its trajectory outside of cleared airspace. During flight, a red warning light came on the spaceplane’s dashboard, indicating that it went off its planned trajectory. The spaceplane flew off-course for a total of 1 minute and 41 seconds, the FAA said. The deviation was first reported by The New Yorker.

The regulator went on to add: “The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations. The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.”

Depending on whether the investigation is complete – and what it finds – that first commercial flight in September may stay stuck on the ground. That flight is supposed to send members of the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to the edges of space, in order to study the effects on transitioning to microgravity on the human body. But until then, Richard Branson’s supersonic company has to stay grounded.

Update: A Virgin Galactic spokesperson told TechCrunch the company has been working with the FAA to resolve the issue. The full 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 altitudeduring 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. 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, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs.”

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