Virgin Galactic could fly after FAA investigation into July incident closes


Virgin Galactic could resume flight operations after the Federal Aviation Administration closed its month-long investigation into an anomaly on its July 11 space flight on Wednesday.

The next mission of the company VSS Unity spacecraft could take place as early as mid-October pending inspections of the craft and other conditions. However, a flight window had not yet been announced on Thursday.

The FAA confirmed that Unity, also known as SpaceShipTwo, strayed from its designated path and into unauthorized airspace during the high-profile test flight, which contained a full crew, including the founder of the commercial space line, Richard Branson. The mission took place at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

In addition, the agency found that the company had not reported the deviation of course as required by the terms of its license.

This May 29, 2018 photo made available by Virgin Galactic shows the company's VSS Unity on its second supersonic flight.  After reaching nearly 50,000 feet, Unity will be released from the specially designed Mothership Eve aircraft, and will fall for a moment or two before its rocket motor ignites to send the craft on a steep climb towards the space.

The spacecraft, which uses a rocket motor to reach the edge of space before falling back to Earth and performing a glide landing, was grounded while the incident was being investigated.

“The FAA has asked Virgin Galactic to implement changes to the way it communicates with the FAA during flight operations to ensure the safety of the public,” the agency said on Wednesday, continuing: “Virgin Galactic has made required modifications and can resume flight operations. ”

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The official report detailing the root causes of the incident and the steps taken to rectify them, however, was not immediately available, leaving unanswered the question of why the spacecraft deviated from its intended course and entered the aircraft. unauthorized airspace.

In its initial response to the incident, Virgin Galactic attributed the change of course to “high-altitude winds,” but the company’s veteran test pilot Mark Stucky, who observed the flight, argued that the pilots had erred by climbing at the wrong angle and not responding to the change. in trajectory. Stucky left the company – reportedly fired – shortly after the July robbery.

On its way back, Unity veered into the airspace where other craft would have navigated via instruments and not visually. No other aircraft were present. Spaceport America is located near federally restricted airspace above the nearby US Army White Sands Missile Range facility.

Responding via a press release, Virgin Galactic said on Wednesday it would expand the protected airspace for its flights to allow variable flight paths, and change its procedures to ensure timely notifications to air traffic control of the FAA.

In this photo provided by Virgin Galactic, the VSS Unity rocket engine burns above Earth on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Entrepreneur Richard Branson and five teammates from his space travel company Virgin Galactic have reached an altitude of about 53 miles (88 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert, enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth.

Affirming his company’s commitment to safety, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier wrote in a statement: “Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures. Updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience. ”

Virgin Galactic has also investigated a possible manufacturing defect reported by a supplier, the company announced earlier in September.

The next test flight, designated “Unity 23”, is planned as a lucrative flight with members of the Italian Air Force training as astronauts on board.

As a result of that mission, the company said it plans to spend a few months upgrading Unity and the WhiteKnightTwo (also known as VMS Eve), the aircraft that carries it to an altitude of 50,000 feet before the spacecraft fires its rocket.

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This schedule places the start of regular commercial service at least in the middle of 2022. Passenger tickets for brief trips to the edge of space, about 53 miles above Earth, are currently sold for 450,000. $. Virgin also has contracts to drive search payloads.

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.

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