- Flight to edge of space veered off course during descent
- Virgin criticizes ‘misleading characterizations’ of incident
British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s flight on his own spaceship is under investigation from the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) owing to a disturbance on his brief 11 July journey to space.
On Thursday, the FAA told the Guardian that an investigation was under way into the Virgin Galactic flight that “deviated from its air traffic control clearance” as it landed back on American soil.
The flight was surrounded by much fanfare and criticism, perceived as a symbol of wealth gaps and questioning the carbon footprint of the missions. It came almost at the same time that fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos flew into space in his own craft.
The problem with Branson’s flight arose when a yellow light flashed on the console of the vehicle when it was landing, as sign that the flight was “too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical,” a New Yorker report said on Wednesday.
In a statement to the Guardian, Virgin Galactic refuted claims made in the report, terming it a host of “misleading characterizations” of the incident.
“Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols,” read the statement. “When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.”
The statement acknowledged that while the flight eventually did divert from its assigned path, it was “a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space”.
In response to the FAA’s investigation, the company pointed out that it followed its required regulations such as maintaining its path within the lateral confines, but it did drop below its assigned altitude for one minute and 41 seconds “as a result of the trajectory adjustment”.
“At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs,” the company said in its statement, adding that it is working with FAA with regards to future flights.
The FAA did not comment about Virgin Galactic’s response, and reiterated that the issue is still under investigation.
Branson was the first among his billionaire contemporaries such as Amazon founder Bezos and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk to launch into this so-called “space race”, which drew widespread criticism given the mission occurred while the pandemic has rendered millions of people homeless and jobless, as well as for the carbon footprint such missions can leave. Musk is yet to make his journey, and has put down a deposit with Virgin Galactic for a future flight.
The FAA investigation could hit the marketing of future flights for Virgin Galactic, a brand Branson has been building since 2004. He announced in August that its flights would be available to the public for $450,000 as a starting price, echoing his mission to “make space more accessible to all.”
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