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FAA investigates Branson’s wayward rocket ride

The Associated Press and other media outlets reported the basic facts starting September 2 that the FAA had ordered Virgin Galactic to conduct no further flights pending the investigation of the July flight’s trajectory, which strayed outside of the protected airspace for one minute and 41 seconds of the 15-minute rocket ride to 53.5 miles above the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

A more detailed account published by The New Yorker magazine on September 1, written by longtime staffer Nicholas Schmidle, raised afresh questions about Virgin Galactic’s safety culture that were also detailed in Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, the book Schmidle spent years reporting and writing.

Schmidle wrote that warning lights, first yellow, later red, that appeared about a minute into the rocket burn on July 11, indicated that the craft was off-course and in danger of not having enough energy available at apogee to glide back to the spaceport where the media awaited the return of Branson and the Virgin Galactic crew.

On September 2, Virgin Galactic announced its next planned flight from Spaceport America will carry paying crewmembers, two members of the Italian Air Force, and an aerospace engineer working for the National Research Council. Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses will serve as “cabin lead in space,” providing information and instructions as the mission proceeds. The flight is also expected to carry various scientific payloads.

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,” the FAA told CNBC on September 2.

Virgin Galactic’s share price, which had been climbing, dropped 3 percent after the FAA investigation was announced, CNBC reported.

A Virgin Galactic spokesperson told Schmidle that the company “is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level.”

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