The Federal Aviation Administration has closed its “mishap investigation” into the July 11 flight of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and three others, the space tourism company’s first dedicated passenger trip. Future flights will reserve a greater volume of airspace and the company promises better communication, but other than that the company is clear to fly again.
The flight anomaly the FAA was looking into was brought to public awareness by a New Yorker article claiming that VSS Unity, the rocket-powered spacecraft that took the passengers to the edge of space, not only left its protected airspace but descended by a more dangerous method than originally planned. This “red-light entry glide-cone warning” supposedly resulted from the pilots not ascending fast enough and needing to resort to this alternate method to return — though it was reported that aborting the mission is the preferred move.
Though Virgin Galactic acknowledged at the time that “high altitude winds” resulted in a trajectory that “deviated from our initial plan,” there was no danger to the occupants. It called the red-light description of the flight “misleading.”
In any event the FAA does not seem to have made an issue of it, though it did not take kindly to the craft leaving its officially designated flight zone, grounding the company’s aircraft while it looked into the issue. These protected areas are set aside to, among other things, minimize the possibility of damage on the ground, and while Spaceport America is quite far from civilization it’s not something to play fast and loose with. (Incidentally, as someone who was on the ground there during the flight, I can’t help but feel a little alarmed in retrospect.)
For future flights, Virgin Galactic will reserve more airspace to accommodate the potential for anomalous trajectories like this one. The FAA was also cross with the company for failing to communicate said anomalous trajectory to it in real time, so new procedures have been added to ensure this takes place next time … and every time.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement: “We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry. Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures. The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”