FAA clears Virgin Galactic for takeoff after investigation of Richard Branson's suborbital spaceflight

Virgin Galactic's next test flight, Unity 23, is targeting a flight window in mid-October

Virgin Galactic shares are soaring Thursday after the company was cleared for takeoff by the Federal Aviation Administration following the agency's investigation into a July 11 test flight of its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo space plane.

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
SPCE VIRGIN GALACTIC HOLDINGS, INC. 20.04 +0.38 +1.93%

Virgin Galactic's Unity 22 mission, which focused on testing the cabin experience for future commercial spaceflight, carried founder Richard Branson and three other employees 53 miles above the Earth to suborbital space. The crew experienced weightlessness for approximately four minutes before returning home. 

A Virgin Galactic spokesperson previously told FOX Business that VSS Unity encountered high-altitude winds during its descent that changed its trajectory, dropping it below its permitted altitude. However, they said no one was ever in any danger.

BLUE ORIGIN UNVEILS DATE, FIRST TWO CREW MEMBERS FOR OCTOBER SUBORBITAL SPACEFLIGHT

The FAA launched an inquiry into the incident in August, which temporarily halted Virgin Galactic's flights. 

"The investigation found the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space," the agency said in a statement Wednesday. "The FAA also found Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required."

Following the investigation's findings, the FAA required Virgin Galactic to implement changes to how it communicates to the agency during flight operations. Virgin Galactic has also updated its calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights to ensure "ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions." 

"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. "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."

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON FOX BUSINESS

The next upcoming test flight, Unity 23, will carry members of the Italian Air Force and focus on microgravity research and the professional astronaut training experience. Unity 23 is targeting a flight window in mid-October, pending an inspection of a potential manufacturing defect in a component of the flight control actuation system supplied to Virgin Galactic. 

"At this point, it is not yet known whether the defect is present in the Company’s vehicles and what, if any, repair work may be needed," the company said in a statement earlier this month. "A further update and specific flight window will be shared once the inspection is complete, in coordination with the Italian Air Force."

After Unity 23, VSS Unity and VMS Eve will undergo an extensive maintenance and enhancement period. The enhancements, subject to testing and verification, could reduce Unity's turnaround flight to four to five weeks, down from the current rate of seven to eight weeks, and potentially allow VMS Eve to fly 100 flights between major maintenance inspections, compared to the current interval of 10 flights, according to Colglazier. 

Following the enhancement periods, Virgin will conduct its fully crewed Unity 24 flight, which will validate the modifications and serve as final confirmation of the mid-commercial cabin. Unity 25 will then mark the start of commercial service with private astronauts.

Virgin Galactic is currently selling tickets for upcoming spaceflights for $450,000 apiece. The company plans to offer a range of product offerings for private astronaut flights, including a single-seat option, a multi-seat, couples, families and friends package and a full-flight buyout. Meanwhile, Virgin plans to charge $600,000 per seat on its future microgravity research and professional astronaut training flights.