The Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA) said on Thursday (2) that Virgin Galactic will not be able to carry out new space flights while investigating why the spacecraft that transported billionaire Richard Branson to space on July 11, took a detour on the previously planned route.
The decision was made after a report in The New Yorker magazine, which points out that the deviation in the flight plan caused security alerts to be triggered in the cabin of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft and that the signal should have been the reason for the mission to be aborted.
“Virgin Galactic will not be able to fly SpaceShipTwo again until the FAA approves the final investigation report into the diversion or determines that the problem does not affect public safety,” the federal agency reported, according to the AFP news agency.
“During the July 11, 2021 flight, Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo aircraft deviated from its air traffic control permit while returning to Spaceport America,” the space base used by the company in the desert of the state of New Mexico, said the FAA
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The investigation into this irregularity is “underway,” the agency said.
The trajectory problem threatened to compromise the return to Earth phase, when the VSS Unity spacecraft, in which two pilots, Branson and three other passengers were traveling, ended up floating to land on a runway in New Mexico.
In flight, the aircraft surpassed 80 kilometers in altitude, the point established in the United States for the space frontier, causing passengers to shift from their seats and float for about minutes without gravity.
According to the report, the red light on would indicate a serious problem that could have a fatal consequence.
Citing unnamed sources within the company Branson founded, the magazine specified that the safest way to respond to these warnings would have been to stop the mission.
The two pilots on board decided to continue the mission despite the lights, and the landing finally went smoothly.
In response to the magazine’s complaint, Virgin Galactic confirmed that there was a change in the flight plan, but that it was intentional and controlled. “We dispute the descriptions and conclusions of the New Yorker article,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement to AFP.
“When the vehicle was confronted with high altitude winds, which altered the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure that it was within the parameters of the mission”, detailed the company.
“Our pilots responded appropriately to these changes in flight conditions.” Neither the public nor the crew were in danger, Virgin Galactic argued.
“Although the final trajectory deviated from our original plan, it was intentional and controlled,” he said.
A failure would have tarnished the image of Virgin Galactic, which invited the entire press and many renowned spectators – including tycoon Elon Musk, owner of automaker Tesla and aerospace spaceX – to this live-streamed event.
Branson, 70, won for a few days the founder of giant Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and his company Blue Origin in a space race between billionaires.