Take time to show compassion to the Virgin Galactic employees here in our community.
When I started working in the space industry 26 years ago, I was unfamiliar with its vocabulary. My boss was critical of any misuse of the “technical” language which did not help me to continue to experiment with new vocabulary. Using technical language imprecisely may keep most of us from talking about the recent accident at Mojave Air and Space Port. If all of us are able to talk about this, and express ourselves, we can remove a barrier that does not need to exist. Each one of us has more knowledge about the space business than we give each other credit for.
Let’s go with the idea that we can talk about this accident. The young pilot and his family now without a father, no matter how it happened, this family is going through the loss of a husband, father, and son. Their lives will never be the same. Many of us have met the Virgin Galactic employees who live here, their lives have been changed forever too. The hundreds of Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic employees had each other to lean on. Richard Branson flew to Mojave to be there with them. No one came to Las Cruces to visit the Virgin Galactic employees. They are our community members now, so if you know any of them even if you don’t, please send them a note.
The National Transportation Safety Board http://www.ntsb.gov/ is in charge of the investigation. If you are interested in learning how this investigation is progressing, go to this site. The organizations involved in the investigation are The Federal Aviation Administration, AST Commercial Space Transportation office, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. NMSU’s New Mexico Space Grant is involved in the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. In fact, it was NMSU that was awarded the national contract to administer this center. I was in Washington along with Laura Boucheron for our fourth Technical meeting of the Center last week. It was during this meeting, Orbital Sciences experienced the $200m loss of the Antares vehicle that was on an ISS resupply mission. Some of you may know, Orbital Sciences has used White Sands Missile Range to test their various vehicles over the last 30 years. Las Cruces is not removed from this commercial space transportation industry. We are highly involved, we just don’t talk about it much. It may be time to start. The State of New Mexico is committed to this industry.
The NTSB teams are now investigating the SpaceShipTwo accident in six areas: vehicles, systems, engine, vehicle performance, data and operations. The test was a Scaled Composites test of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. Scaled Composites’ parent company is Northrop Grumman. While this is a young industry, companies like Northrop Grumman leaned in very early on in the development of the Virgin space ship. The test program includes many aspects. The powered flight tests are the culmination of hundreds of smaller tests. The test design will be a subject for investigation as the NTSB conducts this year-long investigation. The final NTSB report will be issued in a year, yet preliminary findings are being released daily. On Monday, the wreckage debris field seems to indicate in-flight break-up of the vehicle.
The feather system may have contributed to the break-up of the vehicle. The feather system is designed using the concepts behind the badminton shuttle cock’s ability to re-orient itself into a downward facing direction and slow the shuttle cock down. As the spaceship descends, the feather system is deployed, reorienting the ship downward and slowing the vehicle, turning it into a glider. The in-cockpit camera indicates at the speed of approximately 344 miles per second, the feather lock/unlock lever was move to the unlock position, approximately 2 seconds later the vehicle broke apart.
The safety culture in the space industry continues to evolve just like it has in the airline industry. As investigations progress, facts are gathered but as Christopher Hill, the interim head of the NTSB said, many facts must be gathered before they begin to attribute cause. Wayne Hale and I spoke on Sunday night. He is the former NASA Shuttle Program manager who implemented a culture that emphasized both safety and mission success after the Columbia accident. He said they learned to ask the question “why” seven times when discussing cause. Why did the feather move into position without the feathering handle being moved? After digging six more layers deep it may be that the investigators will be closer to determining cause. Today is election day, I hope you vote. And maybe you will feel a little more comfortable talking about this industry as it people struggle through this difficult time.