The US Federal Aviation Administration grounded Virgin Galactic missions as it investigates how Sir Richard Branson’s recent space flight drifted off course during its climb skyward.
The British billionaire fulfilled a lifetime ambition on 11 July by riding his rocket plane to 86km in altitude.
But the New Yorker magazine has revealed how the vehicle flew for a period outside its pre-agreed airspace.
Sir Richard’s company has disputed the New Yorker’s description of events.
The rocket plane, known as Unity or SpaceShipTwo, which carried Sir Richard aloft, landed safely.
In a short statement, the FAA said it was overseeing the investigation of the “July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico.
“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,” it added.
In response to the FAA announcement, Virgin Galactic said it was cooperating fully with the aviation administration.
It took such issues very seriously, it said, and was working to determine how to prevent trajectory deviations from occurring on future missions.
Thursday saw the company announce details of the next Unity flight – a research outing for the Italian Air Force. This had been scheduled for the end of September or early October, but must now await the results of the FAA probe.
The company said its pilots had encountered unexpected winds at high altitude and took the necessary actions to complete a safe climb to space and return to Earth.
“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico,” a company was quoted.
“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centres or cause a hazard to the public.”
The spokesperson said FAA representatives were present in the ground control room during the flight and in the post-flight debriefs.
The company is expected to begin full commercial trips in the second half of 2022.
Some 600 individuals put down deposits a number of years ago to buy seat tickets costing $200,000-250,000. Tickets sales resumed last month with prices from $450,000 per seat.