A “mishap investigation” of the July 11 flight of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and three other passengers, which was the company’s first dedicated passenger flight, has been concluded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Future flights will reserve a larger amount of airspace, and the company pledges improved communication, but other than that, the airline is free to resume operations.
Flight anomalies were brought to the attention of the public by a New Yorker article reporting that VSS Unity, the rocket-powered spacecraft that transported passengers to the edge of space, not only left its protected airspace but also descended using a more dangerous method than was originally planned. This “red-light entrance glide-cone alert” was allegedly caused by the pilots not rising quickly enough and having to resort to this alternative way of returning — however it has been claimed that aborting the mission would be the preferable course of action — according to the pilots.
Even though Virgin Galactic admitted at the time that “high altitude winds” caused the spacecraft to “deviate from our original plan,” there was no risk to the astronauts on board. It referred to the flight’s description as “misleading” since it took place at a red light.
In any case, the FAA does not seem to have raised a fuss, but it did take a dim view of the craft moving outside its legally authorized flying zone, halting the company’s aircraft while it investigated. These designated zones are set aside to reduce the potential of harm on the ground, and although Spaceport America is very far from society, it is not something to take lightly. (By the way, as someone who was on the ground throughout the trip, I can’t help but feel concerned in hindsight.)
Virgin Galactic will reserve more airspace for future flights to handle the possibility of aberrant trajectories such as this one. The FAA was also displeased with the corporation for failing to report the unusual trajectory to it in real time, and new processes have been implemented to guarantee this occurs next time… and every time.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement, “We appreciate the FAA conducting a comprehensive investigation into this matter.” Our test flight program is particularly intended to enhance our processes and procedures on a continuous basis. Our airspace upgrades and real-time mission notification procedures will bolster our readiness as we near the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”