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Virgin Galactic cleared to launch after US closes safety probe

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Richard Branson speaks after he flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime"./AFP
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Sep 30, 2021 - 12:25 PM

Washington — Virgin Galactic said Wednesday it had been cleared for spaceflight after the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) concluded a probe into a safety “mishap” related to its high-profile mission in July that featured company founder Richard Branson.

The FAA told the company it had accepted its proposed corrective actions related to the flight, which saw the SpaceShipTwo vehicle drop below its assigned airspace during its descent back to its runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic will update its calculations for future flights and request more airspace, and promised real-time communication with the FAA during flight operations, the company said.

“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,” said CEO Michael Colglazier in a statement.

“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 FAA grounded Virgin Galactic earlier this month after an investigative report in The New Yorker said the flight experienced irregularities that could have jeopardized the mission.

The article said the pilots encountered cockpit warnings indicating the rocket-powered spaceplane’s climb was too shallow and the nose was insufficiently vertical.

This could have meant that, after taking its crew to the edge of space, it would have lacked sufficient energy to glide back to its runway on Earth.

In the end, the vessel did land on the runway, but its altitude fell lower than it should have.

An FAA statement confirmed it had closed its “mishap investigation.”

“The FAA also found Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required,” the statement said — a line that suggests the agency only learned of the irregularity through the article in The New Yorker.

Virgin Galactic is planning its next test flight, with members of the Italian air force, around mid-October.

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