The FAA announced the grounding of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle until there’s a completed investigation regarding the vehicle’s July 11th flight which resulted in the vehicle flying outside of its designated airspace over Spaceport America, New Mexico.
While carrying Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and three other passengers, the piloted vehicle was flown outside of its designated airspace for almost 2 minutes due to a trajectory issue.
During the fight, a red warning light for the entry glide-cone appeared alerting the pilots. The crew then had two options: kill the rocket motor or correct the trajectory problem. In a split-second decision, they continued the engine burn and corrected the trajectory error putting them in a Class A airspace without authorization. This incident increased risk for other aircraft, the people on board and on the ground.
According to multiple sources in the company, the safest way to respond to the warning would have been to abort, though a Virgin Galactic spokesperson disputed this.
Some speculators wonder if there was pressure to course correct despite the risk versus aborting the mission. There have been concerns over the safety of Virgin Galactic’s missions in the past including the tragic test flight that killed one pilot and injured another in 2014.
The company stated that “the safety of our crew and passengers is Virgin Galactic’s top priority. Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system, our test flight program and our rigorous pilot training protocol.” However, by not aborting the mission and flying in an unauthorized airspace the risk factor increased which contradicts the company’s claimed commitment of safety at every level.
Just hours before the FAA announced the grounding of the company, Virgin Galactic announced plans for its next flight with the Unity 23 mission which would carry three paying crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council in late September or early October.
In a written statement to Space Channel the FAA said this:
“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. This is standard procedure for all mishap investigations. Depending on circumstances, some mishap investigations might conclude in a matter of weeks. Other more complex investigations might take several months. The FAA will not speculate as to how long this specific mishap investigation will take.”