FAA Grounds Virgin Galactic Spaceplanes Pending Investigation Into July 11 Flight

Virgin Galactic must maintain its spaceplanes grounded until the Federal Aviation Administration investigates a problem that was discovered during Richard Branson's historic July flight to the edge.


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Reuters reported that the FAAs statement was clear, concise and not surprising.

Virgin Galactic could not return the SpaceShipTwo vessel to flight until the FAA approves or determines that the issues related the mishap do no affect public safety.

Oof.

Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes have been grounded by the company. This comes just a day after The New Yorker published an alarming article about problems on Branson's July 11 flight. Branson was flying at 53 miles (86km) above sea level. That is pretty much space.

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SpaceShipTwo's grounding means that a scheduled flight later in the month, in which VSS Unity was to transport members of the Italian Air Force into suborbital space, won't take place. Virgin Galactic's space tourism offering is also being grounded. It will cost $450,000 per seat.

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The flight of Unity 22 went as planned. However, as the New Yorker article shows, pilots Mike Masucci and David Mackay ignored warning lights as they climbed. The pilots ignored an entry glide cone warning that indicated VSS Unity was not climbing fast enough and that the spaceplane would not have enough energy to return to Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The spaceplane flew outside the cone-shaped space volume, which meant it travelled beyond the required airspace for the mission. It did this for 1 minute, 41 seconds. This is a major offense for the FAA who enforces these rules.

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According to the New Yorker article, the pilots should have canceled the mission as soon as the warning lights went on. The warning should have been likened to the disconcerting Monopoly card: Get straight to runway jail, don't pass into orbital Space, and don't collect $200. However, Richard Branson wouldn't have become the first billionaire to go into space if the pilots had done so. This is especially considering that Blue Origins Jeff Bezos did the same feat a few weeks later. The pilots instead of cancelling the mission, however allowed VSS Unitys engines full throttle for the required 1 minute.

To get Virgin Galactic's opinion on the matter, and to learn more about the ongoing FAA investigation, I reached out.

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We are currently working with the FAA, as we have stated previously, to fix the brief time the spaceship fell below its allowed altitude during Unity 22's flight. A spokesperson for the company explained this in an email. This is something we take seriously. We are working with the FAA to address the problem and determine how to prevent it from happening on future missions.

Although the spokesperson admitted that VSS Unity's flight path didn't follow plan, it was able to land at New Mexico's Spaceport.

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The spokesperson stated that passengers and crew were not in danger due to this change in trajectory. Additionally, the ship did not travel over any areas of population or pose a risk to the public at any time. She also said that FAA representatives were present in the control room during flight and post-flight briefings.

Virgin Galactic sent Gizmodo an email yesterday claiming that high winds caused the change in trajectory. The pilots and systems also monitored the trajectory to make sure it was within mission parameters.

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Mark Stucky, a former Virgin Galactic flight test director, says this is absurd. Facts are that the pilots did not trim properly to achieve the correct pitch rate. The winds were well within the limits. They did nothing to fix the trajectory error. After publicly expressing concern over Virgin Galactics safety practices, Stucky was fired just after the Unity 22 mission.

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We are eagerly awaiting the FAA investigation's results. The FAA may not be happy that pilots flew past warning lights and strayed from mandated airspace. The FAA will likely investigate the fact that Virgin Galactic takes paying customers into space. The future of space tourism is uncertain due to the FAA probe, the ongoing investigation and claims of a declining safety culture at Virgin Galactic. Paying customers may want to reconsider taking a ride in a Richard Branson-built spaceship.

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