Recently the Federal Aviation Administration said it was grounding all Virgin Galactic flights until further notice, pending the results of the investigation into the company’s July 11 crewed flight. It was recently uncovered that the spaceplane deviated its trajectory outside of cleared airspace.
Flying outside of approved airspace is a bad thing, but this New Yorker column really sheds some light on the significance of the problems with the July 11 flight and it isn’t pretty (especially within the context of Virgin Galactic’s overall track record). Here is one quote from the report:
The rocket motor on Virgin Galactic’s ship is programmed to burn for a minute. On July 11th, it had a few more seconds to go when a red light also appeared on the console: an entry glide-cone warning. This was a big deal…C. J. Sturckow, a former marine and nasa astronaut, said that a yellow light should “scare the shit out of you,” because “when it turns red it’s gonna be too late”; Masucci was less concerned about the yellow light but said, “Red should scare the crap out of you.”
Furthermore, “An F.A.A. spokesperson confirmed that Virgin Galactic ‘deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance’ and that an ‘investigation is ongoing.’ A Virgin Galactic spokesperson acknowledged that the company did not initially notify the F.A.A. and that the craft flew outside its designated airspace for a minute and forty-one seconds—flights generally last about fifteen minutes—but said that the company was working with the F.A.A. to update procedures for alerting the agency.”
The last pronouncement by Virgin Galactic was that they targeted “late summer” 2022 for their first paid tourist launch. Who knows how long the FAA’s “ongoing investigation” will delay things?