It looks like Virgin Galactic's place in the billionaire space race has stalled and it will not be flying again any time soon. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded space flights by Virgin Galactic while it investigates the company's much-hyped July jaunt to the edge of space. The vehicle carrying Richard Branson deviated from its planned trajectory to go slightly off course on its return to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
“The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico,” the agency said in a short statement. “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.”
The FAA decision comes after reports that a minute into the rocket trip carrying the Virgin CEO, a yellow warning light came on, suggesting that the spaceship was not in the right trajectory for coming back to the Earth in its designated airspace, reports Nicholas Schmidl for the New Yorker. When the light turned red, the craft either had to go under immediate corrective action or the whole mission was going to be aborted.
The pilots chose the first option. That day the Unity 22 spacecraft soared to an altitude of 85 kilometers (52 miles), just short of the Kármán line, the internationally recognized edge of space set at an arbitrary 100 kilometers (62 miles) of altitude. By trying to correct their trajectory, the team went beyond their allowed airspace, thus prompting the FAA investigation.
“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,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.
The company’s first commercial flight was expected to take place between late September and early October. It is currently unknown if the investigation will be complete ahead of this or if the flight will have to be postponed. However, should you crave the next saga in the billionaire space race, SpaceX's first all-civilian space mission is currently scheduled for September 15, so grab the popcorn and meet us back here then.