The FAA grounds Virgin Galactic’s spaceship after flight deviation

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The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday it has suspended Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle until the agency completes an investigation into the vehicle’s flight outside its designated airspace.

“Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo may not return the vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final accident investigation report or issues related to the accident affecting public safety,” the aviation agency said in a statement.

The statement follows a report on Wednesday that the spacecraft carrying Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and three other passengers flew outside its designated airspace over New Mexico for 1 minute 42 seconds on July 11.

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During that flight, a red light appeared on the spacecraft’s console, which alerted the crew to an “entry glide-cone warning”. Pilots Dave McKay and Mike Masucci were faced with a split second decision: kill the rocket motor or take immediate action to correct its trajectory problem. The pilots continued to burn the engine and corrected the trajectory error. But in doing so, he flew out of his designated airspace, which had been cleared for the safety of other aircraft and those on the ground.

In the weeks following the flight, Virgin Galactic and Branson based their success and the implication that they had defeated Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin in space. But reports interrupted those celebrations, and Virgin Galactic shot back by issuing a statement Wednesday afternoon. It reads, in part:

Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that followed our flight procedures and training protocols. When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds that altered the trajectory, pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots respond to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and strictly in accordance with our established procedures.

But not everyone agreed with the characterization of the events of the Virgin Galactic. Following the company’s statement, former Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark “Forger” Stuckey said the following: on twitter: “Today’s most misleading statement was from Virgin Galactic. The fact that the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within range, did nothing to address the trajectory error did, and entered Class A airspace without authorization.”

Implications for the next flight

On Thursday morning, after the FAA said it was grounding the spaceship, Virgin Galactic announced plans for its next flight. company said Its Unity 23 mission will carry three paid crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council. In its news release, Virgin Galactic said it was targeting a flight window of late September or early October 2021, pending technical investigations and weather. It made no mention of the FAA issue.

However, following the FAA’s announcement, Virgin Galactic issued an updated statement:

As we’ve said before, we’re working in partnership with the FAA to reduce the time the Unity 22 spacecraft falls below its permitted altitude during flight. We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of this issue and determining how to prevent it on future missions… Working closely with the FAA.

What this means for the actual launch of the Unity 23 mission is yet to be decided.

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