Today at 7:30 am MT, the National Transportation Safety Board will release its final report on the Virgin Galactic accident that occurred on a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo October 31st, 2014.
In a preliminary report issued by the NTSB last November, it was reported the pilot who survived the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo didn’t know that his copilot unlocked the space plane’s re-entry system early, investigators say. As reported by Space.com, the SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair during a test flight from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 31, killing copilot Michael Alsbury and sending pilot Peter Siebold to the hospital. Alsbury apparently unlocked the vehicle’s “feathering” system – which rotates SpaceShipTwo’s tail booms upward to increase stability and drag during re-entry – too soon, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have said.
The NTSB is piecing together details of just what happened, and why. The picture got a little clearer on Friday (Nov. 7), when investigators talked to Siebold. SpaceShipTwo’s feathering system is designed to deploy only after two actions are taken; a lever must be moved to the the “unlock” position, and then a handle must be shifted to the “feather” position. On Oct. 31, the system apparently deployed even though the second action didn’t occur (the handle wasn’t moved to “feather”). In a news conference earlier this month, Hart referred to the deployment as “an uncommanded feather.”
SpaceShipTwo is designed to be lofted to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) by a mothership called WhiteKnightTwo. Dave Mackay, the company’s chief pilot, was in WhiteKnightTwo when the crash of the spaceship occurred below their vehicle.
Dave recently spoke to the BBC about last October, when the company’s spaceship broke apart in mid-air over California. “We were listening out on the radio and it became apparent fairly early that something had gone seriously wrong,” he said. Mr Mackay, from Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, was flying the mother ship, called White Knight Two, that had ferried the rocket plane to around 50,000ft before releasing it to the sky.
“We didn’t see anything. We launch the spaceship and it drops below us several hundred feet before it ignites the rocket motor,” he said. “When it was apparent the wreckage had hit the ground, we descended to try to give some support in any way we could. Which involved, basically, finding out where the vehicle was and finding out where the survivor was and relaying that position back to emergency services.”
Dave has been to Las Cruces many times, and was the pilot when the vehicle came to Las Cruces earlier in 2014. He has also spoken at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) about the experience of flying this beautiful vehicle designed by Burt Rutan and the SpaceShipCompany.
Both pilots were employed by Scaled Composites, SpaceShipTwo’s designer and the manufacturer of the rocket plane’s first copy. The Spaceship Company, a subsidiary of Virgin Galactic, is taking over construction follow-on SpaceShipTwo vehicles. “Our company is turning the corner and looking to the future,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO. “Our team and our investors remain committed to the goal of opening space to all. Our team has organized the final steps of the build schedule to accommodate any learnings from the NTSB investigation, and we’re committed to making any modifications or improvements that we feel are necessary to improve the safety of the vehicle,” Whitesides said. Mr. Whitesides will be speaking at ISPCS here in Las Cruces at the ISPCS, October 7-8.
Virgin Galactic will manage SpaceShipTwo test flight’s when the space plane returns to the sky, according to Whitesides. The company’s cadre of test pilots includes former space shuttle commander Rick Sturckow, and Mike Moses – a former NASA manager who chaired the space shuttle’s mission management team – is Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations.
Whitesides said the test team is also staffed by experienced military test pilots.
Todd Ericson, former chief of safety at the U.S. Air Force Test Center, leads Virgin Galactic’s flight test team.
Virgin Galactic is working to break a barrier many innovators face in taking a protype model, like SpaceShipOne and moving it and the company into a commercial enterprise. The Product Development Cycle, is a well-known cycle for product commercialization. When the Ansari XPRize was won in 2004 by Scaled Composites, Richard Branson licensed the technology from Paul Allen, the owner and the person who funded the development of SpaceShipOne. You may recall Paul Allen is the co-founder of Microsoft. SpaceShipOne was an applied research model that might have gone on to future flight across the country as in the old barn storming days. However, when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum asked if they could hang it next to the Spirit of St. Louis, the spaceship never flew again. We will never know what could have been learned by flying the vehicle to see if repeatable results and incubation could have told us more.
SpaceShipTwo is an early stage vehicle which must be tested to make sure each milestone can be documented and repeatable results will indicate it can go to the next phase of development. We New Mexicans believe the persistence of the people at Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, their willingness to adjust their plans to create success is what we need to achieve the goal of increased access to space for mankind. Dave MaKay said it best, This is hard. It has turned out to be harder than we thought it would. But if it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago.