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Virgin Galactic Cleared for Flight

FAA Accepts Proposed Changes, Unity 23 Cleared for Mid-October Flight

Virgin Galactic has announced the outcome of an FAA inquiry into an airspace deviation during the Unity 22 Test flight on July 11, 2021. The FAA has accepted the company’s proposed corrective actions to prevent future issues during the aircraft’s re-entry phase. The next test flight, Unity 23, is expected to take place Mid-October in conjunction with the Italian Air Force. 

The Inquiry was begun in response to Unity 22’s momentary airspace incursion during the reentry phase of its July flight. During its glide back to Earth, the aircraft deviated below its protected approach path for 1 minute and 40 seconds before stabilizing again within protected airspace. Virgin Galactic’s proposed changes to its operating standards and mission conduct have successfully addressed the FAA’s concerns. They plan to update approach calculations with increased airspace margins to expand the safety buffer during future flights, as well as changes to better integrate communications with FAA Air Traffic Control throughout the extended approach.  

It has been a fine summer for Virgin.  July's Unity 22 flight was the first of Virgin Galactic's manned spaceflights, making history when it took company founder Richard Branson to orbit only days before competing attempts by other well-heeled private spacefarers.  This netted the company an early win in the burgeoning space race, sorely needed to inspire investor confidence.  Virgin is the only large, publicly traded space tourism company, requiring a deft corporate hand to keep stock prices in the green. A difficult, expensive endeavor, as they simultaneously design, write, and publish the space tourism book from scratch as they go along. Branson himself once famously said “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.”  With each flight, the company accountants further understand just why NASA's focus turned towards unmanned vehicles years ago. 

Taking people to space, as it happens, really churns through money, ideally other people's. Some commentators noted with irritation that the results of the FAA inquiry took them by surprise. A positive outcome would have been expected, they said, had they even known it was happening in the first place.   While Virgin is traditionally forthcoming about issues, there was little fanfare about the airspace incident, with plenty of non-aeronautical would-be experts analyzing the incident, all too often from a place of relative ignorance. Nevertheless, some commentators have noted the tight-lipped attitude of company leadership as perhaps more suited to fully private enterprises like SpaceX or Blue Origin.  

Tickets for the experience are available for an eye-watering $450,000, up from $250K for private individuals in past sales.  The six-seat cabin is even available for reservation, should users want more space to themselves.  Professional use carries a price of $600k, for research and business trips.   

FMI: www.virgingalactic.com

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