New York: The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Thursday it is grounding Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo from further flights while it investigates why the flight carrying CEO Richard Branson deviated from its flight path unexpectedly.
The July 11 test flight with Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees dropped below its protected airspace for one minute and 41 seconds during its descent back to the runway in the New Mexico desert. The deviation placed the spaceflight outside the area where air traffic control had granted clearance.
In a statement, the FAA said: "Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety."
Dark day for the billionaire space race
Virgin Galactic said while the July 11 voyage was "a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols," the company had to cushion the FAA's decision based on the flight path deviation.
"At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory," Virgin Galactic said in the statement.
The ban on fresh flights for SpaceShipTwo comes as Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch a new flight in a few weeks' time with a team from Italy on board. On Thursday, though, the company went to some lengths to insist Branson and the others were never in harms way.
Virgin still hopes to send, along with Branson, two Italian Air Force officers, an engineer for the National Research Council of Italy and two pilots. The liftoff is penciled in for sometime in late September or early October.
Billionaire versus billionaire
When Virgin Galactic launched its maiden voyage, it beat rival billionaire Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin by just nine days. Bezos launched into space on July 20 from West Texas.
While both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are selling tickets aboard their flights to the privileged masses interested in space flights and zero gravity, only Virgin Galactic had announced further flight plans.
Branson has touted the company as ushering in a new era of space tourism.