The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Wednesday it is investigating a deviation in the descent of the flight of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane that carried British billionaire Richard Branson to the edge of space on July 11.
The New Yorker magazine earlier reported that the regulator was investigating an off-course descent. An FAA spokesman told Reuters the vehicle "deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America. The FAA investigation is ongoing."
Virgin Galactic acknowledged in a statement to Reuters that "the flight's ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan" but added it "did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace."
The company said "the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace ... "for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace."
It added that "at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public." The company said it is "working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights."
Virgin Galactic said that "when the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters."
The New Yorker reported that during the flight a red light flashed on the ship's console, indicating an "entry glide-cone warning." Virgin Galactic said that "at no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory."
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic employees who took part in the flight, soaring 1 more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert, in July touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism and said the company he founded in 2004 was poised to begin commercial operations next year.