US grounds Virgin Galactic after space flight 'mishap'

The vessel flew 85 km (52 miles) above the US definition space. It landed safely. However, FlightRadar24 data showed that it had flown out of its intended path.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Thursday announced that it is grounding Virgin Galactic's space flights while it investigates the reason Virgin Galactic's July mission with Richard Branson diverted from its intended trajectory.

This is a setback for the space tourism company as it prepares for paying customers after its first fully-crewed test flight.

It is not clear if the next test flight involving members from the Italian Air Force will be as scheduled in late September/early October.

The FAA oversees the Virgin Galactic investigation into its July 11 SpaceShipTwo accident that occurred over Spaceport America in New Mexico," the agency stated in a brief statement.

It stated that Virgin Galactic could not return the SpaceShipTwo vessel to flight until the FAA approves a final mishap investigation report, or determines that the issues related to mishap do not impact public safety.

After a New Yorker report, the FAA made its decision after the flight received cockpit warnings regarding its rocket-powered ascent. This could have put at risk the mission.

Nicholas Schmidle, an investigative journalist, wrote that the pilots saw a yellow and then a red light. This indicated that the spaceplane's climb was too low and that the nose was not sufficiently vertical.

The vessel wouldn't have been able to glide back to its runway if it didn't take corrective action.

Schmidle wrote that "according to multiple sources within the company, it would have been the safest to respond to the warning would be to abort." Virgin disagrees.

The aborting of Branson's plans to beat Jeff Bezos would have been a defeat for the flamboyant billionaire. His own flight to space was scheduled for a few days later.

Pilots tried to fix the problem by flying at Mach 3 and turning on a red light.

The vessel flew 85 km (52 miles) above the US definition space. It landed safely. However, FlightRadar24 data showed that it had flown out of its intended path.

Sir Richard Branson speaks about his flight into space aboard Virgin Galactic's vessel.

'Billionaire bankroller'

Schmidle wrote that it is unclear whether the pilots' decision was driven by programmatic pressures or the hopes of their billionaire bankroller, but that it was not.

Virgin Galactic stated to AFP that it disagreed with the New Yorker article's "misleading characterizations" and conclusions.

It stated that the vehicle was subject to high altitude winds, which altered its trajectory, and that the pilots and systems had monitored it to make sure it remained within the mission parameters.

"Our pilots were able to respond appropriately to changing flight conditions as they had been trained, and in strict compliance with our established procedures."

Although the company admitted that the flight was not as planned, it described the delay as a brief period of 1 minute and 43 seconds at altitude below the prescribed altitude. It did not change the area it was flying over.

"The ship did not travel over any areas of population or pose a danger to the public at any time."

Virgin Galactic has been involved in close calls and accidents, most notably in 2014, when one pilot was killed and another injured in a crash.

Schmidle stated that employees who had criticised the safety culture of the company were fired or resigned.


Virgin Galactic's NASDAQ stock fell immediately following the news, but it recovered slightly to lose three percent at the end of business.

The company, which had been riding high on what appeared to have been a successful flight, was suddenly in a different place. Branson described it as the "experience" of a lifetime.

After decades of development, the 15-minute-long flight, along with Bezos' Blue Origin rocket flight nine days later, seem to have ushering in a new era in space tourism.

Virgin Galactic announced last month that it would be relaunching ticket sales at $450,000. This is approximately twice the $200,000-250,000 paid by 600 people who had previously booked tickets on Virgin's spaceship between 2005-2014. It was doing so to make a profit.

The FAA decision to suspend flights was not immediately addressed to the company.

Branson mum reveals when Virgin Galactic will launch him to space.

2021 AFP