FAA clears Virgin Galactic after completing investigation of Branson’s spaceflight, stock jumps 10%

Carrier aircraft VMS Eve takes off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, carrying spacecraft VSS Unity on July 11, 2021.

Virgin Galactic

The Federal Aviation Administration cleared Virgin Galactic to return to flight on Wednesday after completing a mishap investigation into the spaceflight that carried Sir Richard Branson.

The regulator had grounded the space tourism company’s operations earlier this month, after the FAA learned that the company’s spacecraft went off course during the mission on July 11.

“The investigation found the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space,” the FAA said in a statement, adding that “Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation” as required.

Virgin Galactic has made “required changes” to its communications during spaceflight operations, the FAA noted. The company said that it updated its calculations “to expand the protected airspace” during future missions, as well as taken “additional steps” to the FAA receives “real-time mission notifications.”

Shares of Virgin Galactic jumped as much as 10% in after-hours trading from its close of $22.56.

“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 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 CEO Michael Colglazier said in a press release.

Branson’s spaceflight was not as flawless as it seemed to viewers of Virgin Galactic’s live broadcast. During the ascent, while spacecraft VSS Unity’s rocket engine was firing, a warning light came on due to the vehicle going off trajectory.

The New Yorker first reported the issue that arose during Branson’s trip to space. The report emphasized concerns with Virgin Galactic’s technology and safety culture, highlighted by the recent departure of flight test director Mark “Forger” Stucky — who reportedly was fired over a video call following Branson’s spaceflight. The New Yorker stressed that Stucky repeatedly issued warnings internally at Virgin Galactic about the safety of the company’s flight tests.

Virgin Galactic was targeting late September to early October for its next spaceflight test, called Unity 23 and carrying six people on board — two pilots and four passengers – on a mission for the Italian Air Force. The company has not yet released a launch date for Unity 23, saying earlier this month that the earliest the spaceflight would happen is mid-October given the FAA investigation.

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