Sir Richard Branson floats in space

Virgin Galactic space flight investigated for deviation

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space in July is being investigated by US safety regulators after the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle apparently deviated from its course on its return to Earth.

Billionaire businessman Sir Richard became the first owner-astronaut to take part in a mission when he took off on board the spaceship in July this year - beating fellow billionaire space rivals Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to the space punch - ultimately reaching the edge of space, which he hailed as the “experience of a lifetime”.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates all aspects of US civil aviation, has now revealed that an “investigation is ongoing” into the Unity 22 mission.

According to an FAA spokesperson: “During its July 11, 2021 flight, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America”.

Virgin Galactic has now been ordered to temporarily halt test flights into space while US safety regulators investigate the issue.

Issuing an update on its investigation late on Thursday, the FAA said that 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 statement continued: “The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and re-entry operations”.

The news seems likely to disrupt Virgin Galactic's plans for its next planned test flight, the Unity 23 mission, which is aiming for a flight window in late September or early October.

Virgin Galactic has acknowledged that the flight’s “ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan” and strayed out of its mandated airspace. The company blamed high altitude wind changes, but said that the spacecraft “did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace”.

A spokesperson said: “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures.

“As a result of the trajectory adjustment, the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace that is protected for Virgin Galactic missions for a short distance and time (one minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace that is protected all the way to the ground for Virgin Galactic missions.

“At no time did the ship travel above any population centres or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs. We are working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”

The FAA probe emerged after a report by the New Yorker magazine described the ship as “veering off course” and claimed a red warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the landing was “too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical”. Virgin Galactic said it disputes the “misleading characterisations and conclusions” in that article.

Sir Richard’s inaugural space flight was followed within days by a similar space jaunt from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who blasted into space on Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, while Elon Musk continues to pursue similar endeavours at his SpaceX company.

US-based Virgin Galactic aims to develop commercial spacecraft for the purposes of space tourism. Sir Richard's participation in the flight on July 11 marked the 22nd flight test for the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity; its fourth crewed flight, and its first flight with a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists.

Last month, the company reopened ticket sales for its commercial spaceflights, slated to begin in 2022, with individual tickets available starting from $450,000 (£324,000). Virgin Galactic was granted a full full commercial launch license by the FAA in June this year.

Michael Colglazier, chief executive, Virgin Galactic, said the decision to reopen ticket sales stemmed from a surge in consumer interest that followed the successful spaceflights in May and July: “We successfully completed two spaceflights from New Mexico – the latest carrying a full crew of mission specialists in the cabin and garnering an extraordinary global media and consumer response.

“As we endeavour to bring the wonder of space to a broad global population, we are delighted to open the door to an entirely new industry and consumer experience.”

Following his participation in the July flight, Sir Richard told the PA news agency that the experience was “everything I could have possibly dreamt of”.

He said: “It was a lifetime dream. Dreams don’t often turn into reality, and it was just wonderful. One of the most ridiculous moments is, having said a few words, just unbuckling and just drifting off one’s feet, then floating on top of the roof and looking down at our beautiful Earth, and seeing other people floating past you and realising ‘I’m an astronaut’.”

This article was updated 3 September to include further developments following the FAA's announcement

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