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Virgin Galactic cleared to resume space flights

The company announced on September 29 that the FAA had accepted its proposed “corrective actions” following the agency’s investigation into why the July 11 flight with company founder Richard Branson aboard strayed outside of the designated flight operations area.

Those actions include updating calculations “to expand the protected airspace for future flights” to account for “a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.” Unlike Blue Origin and SpaceX, which have fully automated their respective vehicles, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft is hand-flown, requiring the pilots to accurately aim the spacecraft vertically during the rocket burn that propels the craft to an apogee just over 50 miles high. Veering too far off course could make it impossible to return to the Spaceport America runway as a glider.

The company is also adding “additional steps” into the flight procedures “to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.”

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier elaborated:

“Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system and our test flight program,” Colglazier said in the online announcement. “We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry. Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures. The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”

The company may launch its next flight this month, pending resolution of another issue: Virgin Galactic announced September 10 that a vendor had flagged a potential manufacturing defect in a flight control component, though it was not immediately clear if that defect was present in any components actually installed in the spacecraft. The company said the issue is not related to the previous flight or to the FAA investigation that was then ongoing.

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