FAA grounds Virgin Galactic flights

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies that aim to take civilians into space. Recently, Virgin conducted a test flight that included Sir Richard Branson, the company founder, among its crew. Branson and other crewmembers lifted off on July 11 and flew the Virgin Galactic Unity aircraft to an altitude of 86 kilometers above the ground.

However, the flight has now come under scrutiny by the FAA after the aircraft reportedly strayed outside of its allowed airspace during the flight. Unity, also known as SpaceShipTwo, was able to execute the mission and land without issue. However, the FAA issued a statement stating that it was overseeing an investigation of the flight "mishap" that occurred over Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The FAA has told Virgin Galactic that it can't fly Unity again until the final mishap investigation report is approved or until it determines the aircraft straying off course didn't impact public safety. Virgin Galactic says it is cooperating with the FAA investigation.

Virgin has also stated that it is working on methods to ensure none of its spacecraft stray off course in the future. There is a potential that the FAA investigation may delay Virgin Galactic's next mission. Currently, the next Unity flight is scheduled for the end of September or early October.

That flight is to conduct research for the Italian Air Force. However, with the FAA conducting an investigation, the flight can't happen until the investigation is complete. During the mission, the pilots at the helm of the spacecraft had reportedly received warnings that they were off their trajectory.

One danger to straying off course as the spacecraft did is that Unity could have been unable to reach its landing location as it glides back to Earth. One report indicates that typically the protocol when a cockpit warning such as this is received would have forced the spacecraft to turn around, but the pilots continued with their ascent. Virgin Galactic says the New Yorker article detailing the events has "mischaracterizations."