FAA Completes Investigation, Virgin Galactic Cleared to Fly

FAA Completes Investigation, Virgin Galactic Cleared to Fly

The FAA has completed its investigation of Virgin Galactic’s flight route deviation during the July mission that took Richard Branson and five company employees to space. The company made required changes and is now cleared to resume flights.

In a statement late this afternoon, the FAA said the investigation is closed.

Today, the FAA closed the mishap investigation of the July 11 Virgin Galactic Unity 22 launch.

The investigation found the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space. The FAA also found Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required. Virgin Galactic was not allowed to conduct flight operations as the investigation was ongoing.

The FAA required Virgin Galactic to implement changes on how it communicates to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe. Virgin Galactic has made the required changes and can return to flight operations. — FAA

The Unity 22 SpaceShipTwo mission was the much-publicized flight that took company founder Richard Branson, two pilots, and three other Virgin Galactic employees to space on July 11.

Richard Branson (lower left) in flight on Unity 22, July 11, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The flight was completely successful in that the crew launched and landed safely, but New Yorker journalist Nicholas Schmidle later revealed that the flight experienced problems that could have imperiled the crew.

Under the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments, the FAA has very limited regulatory authority over the safety of people aboard a commercial human spaceflight, but it is in charge of public safety for everyone else on the ground or in the air.

As it turns out, SpaceShipTwo violated its FAA-prescribed flight route boundaries during descent. The FAA did not comment on why that occured, as Schmidle did, only that the company did not properly inform it of the incident.

In a statement, the company explained the corrective actions it will take.

  • Updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights. Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.

  • Additional steps into the Company’s flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.

The next mission, Unity 23, will take officers from the Italian Air Force to space, but Virgin Galactic said earlier this month that the flight is delayed in any case because “a third party supplier recently flagged a potential manufacturing defect in a component of the flight control actuation system…”

The company provided no further updates today, simply referencing its earlier statement.

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