The top U.S. aviation safety regulator said it cleared Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. to operate space flights again but found the company failed to communicate a mistake that occurred during a high-profile mission this summer.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday said it had completed a probe into the July flight that carried billionaire Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, and five others to the edge of space and back to a facility in New Mexico.
The agency found the company’s spacecraft deviated from airspace it was assigned during its descent back to Earth, and that Virgin Galactic failed to report that error to the FAA as required.
Virgin Galactic said the aviation regulator accepted its proposals to change how it operates space missions. Those changes, according to the company, include designating a larger area as protected airspace to allow for a variety for possible trajectories during missions and taking steps to ensure the company communicates with FAA air-traffic control about flights as they are occurring.
“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,” Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Michael Colglazier said in a statement.
An FAA spokesman declined to comment on Virgin Galactic’s planned communications changes. A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment.
Shares of the Las Cruces, N.M.-based company rose more than 10% in after-hours trading.
Virgin Galactic previously said that during the July flight, its spacecraft shifted from its planned trajectory for one minute and 41 seconds due to winds while the craft was returning to the ground. The ship never flew above population centers, the company has said.
During its investigation, the FAA prohibited Virgin Galactic from operating space flights. The agency regulates launches and re-entries of space vehicles and has been working to better track missions, activating a new system over the summer to minimize the impact of airspace closures due to space trips.
Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic said it expected to open up a window to potentially operate its next space mission in mid-October, pending the conclusion of the FAA probe. The company also said then that it chose that time frame because it was working with a vendor to analyze a potential manufacturing defect in a component of a flight control system.
That flight, which Virgin Galactic said would be its first commercial research mission, is set to include members of the Italian Air Force.
Write to Micah Maidenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Appeared in the September 30, 2021, print edition as ‘FAA Ends Probe of Virgin Galactic Flight.’