The FAA confirmed late Wednesday that it is looking into Richard Branson’s space flight, claiming that the rocket-powered plane operated by his company, Virgin Galactic, veered off course during its descent.
The FAA’s statement came just days after Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker reported that warning lights appeared on the dashboard of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, signaling that the vehicle was on a dangerous course, while the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, was riding in it during a minutes-long joyride-slash-PR-event that reached the edge of space. The existence of the FAA investigation was also revealed by Schmidle.
The flight’s trajectory “changed,” according to Virgin Galactic spokesperson Barney Gimbel, who added that “when the glide cone message indicated that the pilots should modify the flight path to adjust the trajectory, our pilots did exactly as they were trained and followed the procedures.”
The company defended the safety of the flight, dubbed “Unity 22,” in an initial statement released Wednesday afternoon, saying it disputes “the misleading characterizations and conclusions” in Schmidle’s article.
“Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols. When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters,” the company said.
“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” it added.
The spaceplane’s pilots encountered high-altitude winds, according to the statement, and “responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions.”
However, it acknowledged in a separate statement in response to the FAA investigation that the flight “deviated from our initial plan” and that the spacecraft dropped below the altitude it was approved to fly at for one minute and 41 seconds.
“At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public,” the company added. “FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs. We are working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”
Following up on questions about the reported warning lights in the spacecraft’s cockpit during Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic did not respond.