US regulators have launched a probe into Sir Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space after the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated on return to Earth.
The billionaire businessman became the first owner-astronaut to take part in a mission when taking off in July, which he hailed as an “experience of a lifetime”.
But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates all aspects of US civil aviation, has revealed an “investigation is ongoing” into the Unity 22 mission.
“During its July 11, 2021 flight, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” a spokesperson said.
Original fight plan
Virgin Galactic said 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 the spacecraft “did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace”.
“Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures,” a spokesperson explained.
“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 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, though Virgin Galactic said it disputes the “misleading characterisations and conclusions” in the article.
Sir Richard’s flight led a series of space breakthroughs this year, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also blasting off in July, while Elon Musk continues work on his SpaceX company.