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FAA lifts Virgin Galactic spacecraft groundings

Isabella Richards
Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic has officially been cleared to fly again after weeks of being under investigation by the US Federal Aviation Administration over air traffic control.

FAA lifts Virgin Galactic spacecraft groundings
Virgin Galactic
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The FAA said that “corrective actions” had been accepted and approved by Virgin Galactic following the inquiry beginning 11 August.

In early September, the FAA imposed temporary groundings of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft due to it veering out of its trajectory in the 11 July Unity 22 flight, without informing the regulator initially.  

According to the statement released by the company, the FAA have “updated calculations to expand protected airspace” for flights in the future.  

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“Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions,” it said.

Secondly, the company’s flight procedures received additional steps to “ensure real-time mission notifications” will be dispatched to the FAA Air Traffic Control.

Virgin Galactic successfully performed its fourth crewed spaceflight in July, which saw founder Sir Richard Branson officially complete his first mission.

This beat billionaire Jeff Bezos to space by mere days, despite announcing the flight after the Amazon founder.

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But a New Yorker article revealed that eight sources knowledgeable of the program said the spacecraft veered off course.

During the ascent, as the VSS Unity rocket was firing – about 30 kilometres above air – a warning light appeared, notifying the pilot the nose was “insufficiently vertical” according to the article.

A Virgin Galactic spokesperson admitted to not initially telling the FAA that the craft veered off track for a minute and 41 seconds.

Although the company disputed comments made in the article, it accepted an investigation from the FAA.

“Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system and our test flight program,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

“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.”

Colglazier added the company appreciated the FAA’s review, and said Virgin Galactic’s flight test program is “specifically designed” to improve.

Hours before the FAA grounded its spacecraft, Virgin Galactic announced its next “rocket-powered” test flight of the SpaceShipTwo Unity from Spaceport America.

It was set to be the first commercial flight for the California-based company to initially occur between September and October, carrying crew from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council.

Although the FAA has lifted the groundings, Virgin Galactic is still yet to reveal when this next spaceflight will take place. 

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