Two billionaires took their ambitions to space this summer. It seems one has now been temporarily grounded. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it would be conducting an investigation to understand why Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic mission deviated from the trajectory it had planned. This announcement comes on the heels of a New Yorker article by reporter Nicholas Schmidle, which described some problems with the flight. The article outlined a series of events in which yellow and then red warning lights alerted the pilots that the climb of the craft was too shallow and its nose position was not adequately vertical.
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle went on to reach an altitude of 85 kilometers (52 miles), which meets the criteria for entering space by United States standards. However, it ended up outside of the planned flight path.
It seems that if the vessel does not reach a certain point, it won't have enough power to glide back to the landing runway. Schmidle's article noted that sources at Virgin Galactic stated that the safest option would have been to abort the mission when the warning lights flashed, which did not occur. Virgin Galactic has disputed that characterization.
A statement by the company acknowledged that a deviation had occurred because of high altitude winds, but that the pilots had responded to the situation appropriately. For one minute and 43 seconds, the craft flew below its intended altitude, they said. The entire mission lasted about fifteen minutes.
It's unclear whether a plan to fly to space with members of the Italian Space Force will go ahead in late September or early October. For now, the FAA will oversee the investigation into what it called a "mishap."
"Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety," said the statement.