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FAA clears Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo for flight after probe into July incident

For future flights, the space tourism company will have to keep in closer contact with the FAA.

US-SPACE-TOURISM-BEZOS-BRANSON Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Virgin Galactic is cleared to resume flights of its SpaceShipTwo space plane, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Wednesday, after capping a safety investigation into issues that came up during the company’s July flight carrying its founder Richard Branson. During that mission, SpaceShipTwo strayed from its designated airspace on its descent from space, and Virgin Galactic didn’t tell the FAA about it when it was supposed to.

With the investigation now closed, the FAA required Virgin Galactic to make changes “on how it communicates to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe,” it said in a statement. Virgin Galactic said that includes “updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights” and “additional steps into the Company’s flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.” Another change: “Updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights,” the company said.

The July 11th mission, called Unity 22, carried Branson and three company employees to the edge of space and back over Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America facilities in New Mexico. The company’s SpaceShipTwo, a winged suborbital space tourism plane with two pilots, flew 53.5 miles high, executing a highly publicized demonstration mission. The company has a backlog of some 600 paying customers waiting for their chance to fly.

The mission appeared successful until months later, on September 1st, when The New Yorker reported that pilots had been alerted to warning lights during their rocket-powered ascent to space. Those warnings indicated the spaceship wasn’t ascending vertically enough to be able to free-glide back to Earth after reaching space.

“We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry. Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement, adding that “our entire approach to spaceflight” is focused on safety. “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’s next flight, Unity 23, is a research mission flying three members of the Italian Air Force. Virgin Galactic has said the FAA probe hasn’t affected the timeline for Unity 23, but another technical issue might push things back. Earlier this month, the company said “a third-party supplier recently flagged a potential manufacturing defect in a component of the flight control actuation system that they supply to Virgin Galactic,” and that “the earliest the Company expects to open its flight window for Unity 23 is mid-October.”