The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed in a statement that the July 11 spaceflight “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” Virgin Galactic’s taxpayer-funded homeport in New Mexico.
“The FAA investigation is ongoing,” the agency said.
A representative for Virgin Galactic confirmed that the spacecraft dropped below the altitude of the airspace that was secured by the FAA for the flight for one minute and 41 seconds before it reentered the allotted airspace.
“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. We are working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights,” the representative added.
But in fact, the flight that carried Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder and five other crew members to space didn’t really go as smoothly as it appeared in the onboard livestream and media coverage of the launch, according to a Wednesday report in The New Yorker.
The ship, called the VSS Unity, failed to climb to space steeply enough, prompting a yellow caution light to appear on the pilots’ console as the ship hurdled toward space at twice the speed of sound, The New Yorker reported, citing eight people with knowledge of Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight program.
The yellow light and the ship’s off-course trajectory endangered the mission and imperiled the ship’s chances of staying inside its mandated airspace, which was determined by the FAA, the report said.
Then the yellow light was reportedly replaced by a more urgent red one, which one of the pilots on board, Mike Masucci, a retired Air Force pilot, had previously said “should scare the crap out of you,” according to The New Yorker.
The pilots could either take immediate corrective action, or abort the rocket motor, the report said, alleging that the safer of the two options was to abort.
A representative for Virgin Galactic, though, disputed The New Yorker’s recounting of the events onboard, calling the launch “a safe and successful test flight.”
“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 representative added.
“Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures.
“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”
The representative added that “the safety of our crew and passengers is Virgin Galactic’s top priority.”
Shares of Virgin Galactic were up more than 6 percent in midday trading Thursday after the company announced it expects to launch four people, including two members of the Italian Air Force, into space later this month or in early October on its first commercial launch.