FAA clears Virgin Galactic to fly next round of humans to space after investigation

Virgin Galactic must also resolve technical issue before Unity 23 flight

The Federal Aviation Administration has given Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic the go-ahead to continue to fly more humans to the edge of space.

An investigation was launched by the FAA after the billionaire's spaceflight on SpaceShipTwo in July when the spacecraft diverted outside of its designated airspace.

Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees became the first Virgin Galactic flight with an entire crew on board. The July milestone was a star-studded affair designed to garner more interest from potential customers wishing to achieve weightlessness for a few minutes.

However, about a month after Branson and the crew touched back down the FAA opened an inquiry into the SpaceShipTwo flight path. The New Yorker has also reported the pilots on the spaceship received warning lights reporting a trajectory problem that could have led to an emergency landing.

On Wednesday, the FAA notified the space travel company its corrective actions were enough to close out the mishap inquiry. Those corrective actions include updating calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights that would cover a variety of flight trajectories. 

"The investigation found the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space," the FAA said in a statement. "The FAA also found Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required. Virgin Galactic was not allowed to conduct flight operations as the investigation was ongoing."

The company will also add steps into its spaceflight procedures to send FAA Air Traffic Control real-time notifications. 

"Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system and our test flight program," Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement. "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."

In the meantime, Virgin Galactic continues work on an unrelated issue before flying another crew to space.

During preparation for the Unity 23 test flight with the Italian Air Force, a third-party vendor flagged a potential manufacturing defect with the flight control systems. Virgin Galactic said in a statement on Sept. 10 it continues to determine if the defect is present on its spacecraft or if any repair may be needed. 

As of this report, the next launch date has not been set. 

The company says it has about 600 customers waiting to fly. After Branson's flight in July, the company announced it would open ticket sales again, starting at $450,000 per seat.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity reaches 55 miles above Earth at peak altitude and provides minutes of weightlessness for up to four passengers.