The ban came as Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch three Italian researchers to the edge of space in a few weeks.
The FAA said the missile carrying Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees veered off course as it descended back to its runway in the New Mexico desert on July 11.
The FAA is overseeing the investigation; It is responsible for protecting the public during commercial launches and re-entry operations. On the other hand, crew safety is outside its purview. Virgin Galactic insisted on Thursday that Branson and everyone else on board were never exposed to any additional danger.
“Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final investigation report into the accident or determines that issues related to the accident do not affect public safety,” the FAA said in a statement.
Virgin Galactic admitted that the space plane fell under protected airspace for 1 minute 41 seconds. The spacecraft’s free-flight portion of the up and down flight lasted about 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 53.5 miles (86 kilometers).
Virgin Galactic said high-altitude winds caused the flight to change course and insisted the pilots “responded appropriately”. The flight was a “safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols,” the company said in a statement.
In another statement Thursday, Virgin Galactic added that “at no time did the ship travel over any population center or cause a danger to the public.” Virgin Galactic of Spaceport America operates in the southern New Mexico desert.
“We are taking this very seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the problem and deciding how to prevent this from happening in future missions,” the company said.
Branson ended up beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos – founder of Amazon as well as rocket company Blue Origin – in space by nine days. Bezos was fired on July 20, along with three others from West Texas.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are competing to sell seats to tourists, scientists, and anyone else looking to experience weightlessness for a few minutes. The Virgin Galactic rocket is launched from an aircraft, while the Blue Origin capsule is lifted by a reusable New Shepard rocket.
Virgin Galactic is aiming for late September or early October for its next flight, with two Italian Air Force officers, an engineer at Italy’s National Research Council, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer and two rocket pilots. This will be the company’s first launch as the researchers accompany their own experiences. The company plans to start airline ticket holders next year.
Blue Origin has yet to announce when the next passenger flight will be, other than to say it will be soon.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
Copyright © 2021 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.