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Commercial Space News

Orion's December Test Flight "Truly a Commercial Endeavor"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Nov-2014 (Updated: 07-Nov-2014 07:57 AM)

A test flight of the Orion spacecraft under development to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit is on track for launch on December 4.  The Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) is “truly a commercial endeavor” a NASA official pointed out at a briefing today (November 6) that also included representatives of Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The test version of the spacecraft will make two orbits of the Earth primarily to test heat shield technologies, though a number of other in-flight and recovery operations will be tested as well.

NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, said the test will cost $370 million for the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket and hardware (such as the Service Module) that will not be used again.  The cost does not include the Orion capsule since it will be reused.  When asked what the cost would be if the capsule was included, Geyer replied that NASA is still formulating the total cost of the Orion program and even when it is released (after the Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C review), the cost of this one capsule will not separately identified.  This capsule is part of the design, development, test and engineering (DDT&E) effort to get Orion to the first crewed flight, Geyer explained, and a “fraction of the total” cost to get to that point.

Launch is scheduled for 7:05 am ET on December 4 from Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL (adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center).   It will land about 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.  The launch window is 2 hours and 40 minutes, driven by the need for good lighting conditions during liftoff to obtain imagery of a number of separation events during ascent as well as at the end of the mission for recovery operations in the Pacific.  December 5 and 6 are backup days.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill stressed that EFT-1 is “truly a commercial endeavor.”  NASA contracted with Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin for the resulting data only.  Lockheed Martin is in charge of the mission, which is licensed by the FAA.  ULA has the launch license, and Lockheed Martin has the reentry license.

When asked who has the go/no-go responsibilities, since it is a commercial, not NASA, mission, NASA’s Geyer laid out the structure.   For the launch, ULA makes the go/no-go decision.  Once Orion is in orbit, NASA’s Orion flight director Mike Sarafin is in charge. There are flight rules and procedures and if something goes outside those rules, the issue would be taken to the Mission Management Team (MMT).  The MMT is chaired by Lockheed Martin Mission Director Brian Austin, but NASA is a member of the MMT and discussions would be held, a consensus reached, and the decision forwarded to Sarafin for implementation.

In its two orbits of the Earth, the Orion test capsule will reach an apogee of 3,600 miles, 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS), and reenter Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour.  No humans have ventured beyond the ISS orbit since the final Apollo mission to the Moon in 1972.   When asked how Orion compares with Apollo in terms of heat shield requirements, Geyer said the biggest difference is that Orion is much larger than Apollo – built for four people instead of three.  The Orion heat shield is 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter compared to 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) for Apollo, he explained, adding that Orion’s heat shield also is made of different materials since some of the Apollo materials were carcinogenic.

This Orion test capsule is not outfitted to carry people.  The next Orion flight (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1), on the first Space Launch System (SLS) test in 2017, also will not carry a crew.  The first crewed Orion is scheduled for 2021 on EM-2.  Hill said NASA hopes to fly one Orion per year after EM-2 if budgets permit with the goal of sequentially buying down risk to enable human trips to Mars.  One of those flights will be the Asteroid Redirect Mission, though he was not specific about which one.   Orion can support four people for 21 days.  For longer flights, a habitation module will be needed and a funding wedge needs to be created to develop that hardware, Hill said.

A major theme echoed by the speakers on today’s panel was that spaceflight is “hard” as last week’s Antares and SpaceShipTwo accidents demonstrated.   Hill stressed, however, that there is no commonality between any of the systems involved in those accidents and the EFT-1 mission.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article said that Orion's apogee would be 3,600 kilometers, but it is 3,600 miles.

Orbital To Accelerate Antares Upgrade, Use Other Rockets to Meet NASA Commitments - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2014 (Updated: 05-Nov-2014 10:03 AM)

Update:  This article is updated throughout following Orbital's investors teleconference this morning.

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced this morning (November 5) its plan for meeting its contractual commitments to NASA for delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of the Antares failure last week.  It will accelerate upgrading the Antares rocket to use a different engine and launch "one or two" cargo missions using other unspecified launch vehicles.  Using the new rockets, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be able to carry more each time and Orbital can meet its commitment with four rather than five more launches.

Orbital made the announcement in a press release and an investors teleconference with its Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson.  He said that there will be no cost increase to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, modest or no near-term delays to the delivery of ISS cargo, and no expected material financial impacts to Orbital in 2015, although the magnitude and timing of quarterly changes depends on the specifics of the plan it chooses, or in 2016 and beyond.

Thompson said initial indications are that a turbopump-related failure in one of the two AJ26 main engines is the likely cause of the October 28 Antares failure that destroyed a Cygnus loaded with 5,050 pounds of supplies for the ISS.  Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through 2016.  Eight operational cargo launches were planned to meet that commitment.  The October 28 mission was the third in the series, Orb-3, so five more were expected.  The launches are from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.

Suspicion immediately centered on the AJ26 main engines not only because the failure happened so soon (about 15 seconds) after the rocket left the launch pad, but because they are refurbished Russian engines built four decades ago.  Although they had successfully completed intensive testing prior to being certified for launch, in an investors call last week Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems.  Today he said use of the AJ26 "likely" would be discontinued "unless and until" they can be shown to be reliable.

Orbital had been planning to switch to a different engine, but has not announced what the replacement will be.  Thompson again declined to identify the engine this morning.  When asked what criteria he was looking for in a new engine compared to the AJ26, he said reliability, followed by a balance of increased performance and reasonable cost.  The upgraded Antares was to be introduced in 2017, but that timeline will be accelerated to 2016.

To fulfill the rest of Orbital's commitment to launch a total of 20 tons to the ISS by the end of 2016, Thompson said the company will conduct "one or two" Cygnus launches using launch vehicles from other providers in 2015 and perhaps early 2016, and then the upgraded Antares for the remaining launches in 2016.  The amount of mass Cygnus can launch was, in part, dictated by the capability of the Antares rocket.  Using the third-party rockets, the upgraded Antares and an "enhanced Cygnus" that already was planned to replace the original version, future Cygnus spacecraft will be able to carry more mass each time, about 3,300 kilograms instead of 2,600-2,700 kilograms, he said.  Thus the cargo requirements can be met with just four instead of five more launches.

He did not name what other launch vehicles the company is considering while waiting for the upgraded Antares to debut.  He said only that they were talking to two U.S. and one European launch service providers.   When asked specifically if he was considering launching Cygnus in the lower position on a European Ariane rocket, which can carry two payloads at a time, Thompson said no because the other payload most likely would be destined for a different orbit.  In the dual-payload configuration, Ariane typically takes communications satellites to geostationary orbit above the equator.  Cygnus would be headed to the ISS at 51.6 degrees inclination.

Thompson indicated that the cost savings of launching only four times instead of five would partially offset losses that the company might incur because of the failure that are not covered by insurance.  Thompson said "in key respects this plan follows the same upgrade path we were previously pursuing" and now "we will be able to make faster progress due to our ability to redirect both manpower and hardware from the original Antares configuration" to this one.

The company said today that repairs to the launch pad at Wallops will be undertaken quickly and launch operations with the upgraded Antares will resume in 2016.

A recording of the investors teleconference is posted on Orbital's website.



Republicans Seize Control of Senate, Add to House Majority

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2014 (Updated: 05-Nov-2014 06:51 AM)

The results of some congressional races are still not final, but as of 6:00 am ET November 5, it is clear that Republicans will control the Senate in the 114th Congress and added to their majority in the House.

With Senate races in three states (Alaska, Louisiana, and Virginia) still not over, Republicans have at least 52 seats in the Senate, one more than needed to control the chamber.  Democrats have 43 and there are 2 Independents.  In the House, Republicans will have at least 242 seats, a gain of 13, and there will be at least 174 Democrats.  Results from the remaining districts are pending.

For space policy and programs, the biggest impact likely will be in funding.  Republicans have been pressing for cutbacks in government spending to reduce the deficit, while Democrats have argued for a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.   Republicans oppose tax increases. 

Congress returns to work next Tuesday (November 12).  Little legislation is likely to be passed in the lame duck session knowing that party control of the Senate will change in January.  

The one must-pass piece of legislation is FY2015 appropriations.  FY2015 began on October 1 and the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on December 11. 

Whether a bill will pass to cover the rest of FY2015 (through September 30, 2015) or only for a few weeks or months to provide funding through the beginning of the next Congress when Republicans will have more power to shape its contents is an open question.  NASA was poised to receive a significant increase over the President's request for FY2015 in bills that passed the House and cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a bipartisan basis, so it is possible that the increase will survive, but if reducing the deficit becomes the driving force, it could be endangered.   NOAA's satellite programs similarly fared reasonably well in FY2015 budget action so far.  A major issue in the DOD space policy and budget realm is whether to add money to begin development of a U.S. rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180, used for the Atlas V, which is a very complex issue and it is difficult to assess how much that will be affected by the Republican gains.


NTSB Corrects Correction -- It Was SS2 Co-Pilot Who Moved Lever

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Nov-2014 (Updated: 04-Nov-2014 05:49 PM)

During a press conference last night (November 3), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said that he had misspoken the day before when he said it was the SpaceShipTwo co-pilot who prematurely moved a lever from the locked to the unlocked position.  He said it was the person in the right seat, but NTSB did not know for certain it was the co-pilot.  However, NTSB subsequently tweeted that Hart was mistaken last night, and that it was, indeed, co-pilot Michael Alsbury who moved the lever.  Alsbury died in the accident.  The pilot, Peter Siebold, remains hospitalized.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight on October 31.  The NTSB is leading an investigation to determine the cause.   So far, the investigation has determined only facts and not made any conclusions.  Among the facts is that the co-pilot moved a lever from the locked to the unlocked position to begin activation of a "feathering" system used to slow the spaceplane during its descent.  That lever was supposed to be moved when the vehicle was descending and at Mach 1.4.  Instead, it was moved when the vehicle was ascending and traveling at Mach 1.02.   Activating the feathering system ostensibly required a second step -- moving a separate handle -- and that never occurred, but it deployed anyway.  The NTSB has not publicly said so, but the idea is that the resulting aerodynamic forces tore the spaceplane apart. has asked the NTSB to clarify why Hart first said it was the co-pilot, then corrected himself a day later and said NTSB was not certain it was the co-pilot, and then the NTSB (@ntsb) tweeted that it was indeed the co-pilot.  We will update this story if we get a reply.

The two NTSB tweets read:

"To clarify information provided in the Q&A portion of tonight's media briefing on the #SpaceShipTwo investigation ... (cont'd)"

"...the copilot, who was in the right seat, moved the lock/unlock handle into unlock position; he did not survive the accident. #SpaceShipTwo."

Virgin Galactic Chides Premature Speculation, Continues Work on Second SS2 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Nov-2014 (Updated: 04-Nov-2014 05:57 PM)

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic issued a statement today (November 4) summarizing what has been learned so far about the crash of its SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane on October 31, saying that it "definitely dismisses the premature and inaccurate speculation that the problem was related to the engine or the fuel."  A second SS2 vehicle is about 65 percent completed and "we are moving forward ... with determination," the company asserted.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that one of the two pilots on the powered test flight prematurely moved a switch from the lock to unlock position for a "feathering" system intended to slow the spaceplane as it descended from the highest point of its flight.  Instead, it was moved while the vehicle was still ascending and its rocket engine was firing.  Although moving that lever was one of two steps ostensibly needed to deploy the system, and the second step was never taken, the feathering system deployed on its own.  NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart emphasized that those are facts and not a conclusion as to the cause of the accident.  However, the idea is that resulting aerodynamic forces caused the spaceplane to break apart.  Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died.  The pilot, Peter Siebold, was seriously injured and remains hospitalized.

Early conjecture by some independent commentators who follow the company's activities focused on a new rocket fuel being used in-flight for the first time on the October 31 test flight.  Charges were made that Virgin Galactic, which owns SS2, and/or Scaled Composites, the company that built SS2 and its predecessor SpaceShipOne, paid insufficient attention to safety.  In particular, critics noted that the new plastic-based fuel replaced an earlier rubber-based fuel only recently and not enough testing was done. Some asserted that SS2 had exploded in flight because of the fuel or its oxidizer (nitrous oxide).

The NTSB, however, found the engine and fuel and oxidizer tanks at the crash site.  Hart said they were intact and showed no sign of burn-through or of being breached, ruling out an explosion.  In addition, telemetry and cockpit video showed that the co-pilot moved the feathering system lever from lock to unlock at Mach 1.02 when it should not have been moved until Mach 1.4.

In its statement today, Virgin Galactic reiterated what it has been saying since the accident that "safety is our guiding principle," adding that "any suggestions to the contrary are untrue."  The company vowed to continue working closely with the NTSB "and will focus intense effort on its findings and guidance."  

Virgin Galactic had plans to build five SS2 vehicles.  The one destroyed in this accident was the first and the only one completed.  A second vehicle is 65 percent complete, the company said, and they will continue to build it:  "While this has been a tragic setback, we are moving forward and will do so deliberately and with determination. ... We owe it to all of those who have risked and given so much to stay the course and deliver on the promise of creating the first commercial spaceline."

Hart said that NTSB's investigation could take 12 months although the on-site portion at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA is almost complete. The locus for the remaining analysis will be moved to the NTSB's laboratory in Washington, D.C., he said last night.

Update:  The original version of this article cited statements by NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart on Monday evening that he had misspoken on Sunday when he said the co-pilot had prematurely moved the lever from lock to unlock and that it was the pilot in the right seat, but NTSB was not certain if that individual was the co-pilot.  However, NTSB subsequently tweeted that Hart misspoke on Monday, not on Sunday, and indeed it was the co-pilot who moved the lever.  This article has been updated to reflect that it was the co-pilot.

NTSB Not Sure Which Pilot Moved Feather System from Lock to Unlock - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2014 (Updated: 04-Nov-2014 05:52 PM)

UPDATE, November 4:  The NTSB subsequently tweeted that Hart misspoke at this press conference, not at the previous one, and it was indeed the SS2 co-pilot who prematurely moved the lock/unlock lever.

ORIGINAL STORY: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) acting chairman Christopher Hart said tonight (November 3) that he was mistaken yesterday in stating that it was the co-pilot of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) who prematurely moved the feather system's lever from lock to unlock.  That action appears to have been a major contributor to the SS2 crash on October 31. NTSB knows it was the person in the right seat, but not which of the two pilots was sitting there.  Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died in the crash. The pilot, Peter Siebold, remains hospitalized.

Hart provided a timeline of events for the test flight in Pacific Daylight Time (PDT):

10:07:19 -- SS2 released from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership
10:07:21 -- SS2 engine start
10:07:29 -- Mach 0.94
10:07:31 -- Mach 1.02.  In that 2 second period, telemetry shows lock/unlock lever moved to unlock position.  Soon after, feather system began to deploy.
10:07:34 -- telemetry and video lost

SS2 is a spaceplane that is carried aloft by an aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.  At about 45,000 feet, it releases from the aircraft and then fires a rocket engine to take it higher.  The goal is to reach at least 100 kilometers altitude, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space.  After a few minutes, the spaceplane returns to Earth.  SS2 is owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which offers rides into space for anyone who can afford the $250,000 ticket price.   Passenger flights were expected to commence in 2015, but it is not clear now when that will happen.

The feather system is a unique method of slowing the spaceplane as it descends from the top of its arc (apogee).  The tail booms pivot upwards to create drag to slow it down.  Then, as the spaceplane reaches denser layers of the atmosphere, the tail booms are returned to their normal position and the vehicle glides back to Earth.

It takes two steps to engage the feathering system.  First, a lock/unlock lever must be moved from the locked to the unlocked position.  Then, a separate feathering handle must be moved to the feather position.  The first step is not supposed to take place until the spaceplane has reached Mach 1.4.

Telemetry and video from the cockpit show that one of the two SS2 crewmembers moved the lock/unlock lever to the unlock position at only Mach 1.02, however. The second step, moving the feathering handle to the feather position, never occurred, but the feathering system deployed on its own.  Investigators have not determined why the first lever was moved to the unlock position prematurely or why the feathering system deployed without the second step.

The NTSB has not interviewed the surviving pilot, Siebold.  Hart said they were working with his medical team and family to determine when that should take place.  Although Hart said definitively yesterday that it was the co-pilot (Alsbury) who moved the lever to the unlock position, he said today he was mistaken.  All they know is that it was the person in the right seat.  They cannot state for certain who was sitting there.  (Ordinarily, that is where the co-pilot would sit.)

Hart said on Saturday that debris was scattered over a 5 mile area, but today increased that significantly.  He said lightweight parts have been found as far as 35 miles northeast of the main area, though they do not know if they fell there initially or were carried there by the wind.  The NTSB is collecting all the debris and moving it to hangars for further study.  The largest piece is part of the fuselage wing and he said they would have to carefully cut it into pieces to move it.

The investigation team, headed by NTSB's Lorenda Ward, is broken into groups and a new one was created today, the Human Performance Group, to look at the interfaces between the flight crew and the vehicle, including displays and checklists.

Hart reiterated that the investigation will take about 12 months to complete, but work on-site at Mojave, CA is nearly done and the focus will shift to the NTSB's laboratory in Washington, DC.  In the end, the Board will issue a report with the probable cause and recommendations to prevent it from happening again.  He said this is the last on-scene NTSB press conference from Mojave.

Orbital Names AIB Members, Focuses on Event Timeline

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2014 (Updated: 03-Nov-2014 10:32 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation today named the individuals serving on the Accident Investigation Board (AIB) it is leading to determine the cause of the launch failure of its Antares rocket last week.  The Board's first focus is creating a timeline of events that led to the loss of the Cygnus spacecraft and the 5,050 pounds of cargo it was transporting to the International Space Station (ISS).

Antares lifted off from its launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA last Tuesday (October 28) at 6:22 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  Everything seemed fine for the first 15 seconds, but then the first stage failed.   The rocket was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer moments later.  Suspicion centers on the two AJ26 first stage engines, which are refurbished Russian NK33 engines built more than 40 years ago, but as Orbital President and CEO David Thompson cautioned last week, first impressions are not always correct.

The launch was Orbital's third operational ISS cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  The members of the AIB are all from Orbital and NASA, except for Wayne Hale, an independent consultant, although he is retired from NASA.

  • David Steffy, Chief Engineer, Orbital's Advanced Programs Group (chairman)
  • David Swanson, Senior Director of Safety and Mission Assurance, Orbital's Technical Operations organization
  • Wayne Hale, Independent Consultant and former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager
  • David Cooper, Independent Readiness Review Team, Orbital's Launch Systems Group
  • Eric Wood, Director of Propulsion Engineering, Orbital's Launch Systems Group
  • Tom Costello, Launch Vehicle Assessment Manager, ISS Program, NASA Johnson Space Center
  • Matt Lacey, Senior Vehicle Systems Engineer, NASA Launch Services Program

The AIB is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), specifically by:

  • Michael Kelly, Chief Engineer, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST)
  • Marcus Ward, Mishap Response Coordinator, FAA/AST

This launch did not carry any crew, one of the many differences between it and the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (SS2) on October 31.  That crash investigation is headed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  One of the two SS2 pilots died in that incident.

Orbital and NASA officials have said that the Antares launch site was not badly damaged in the October 28 launch failure.  Orbital's Wallops-based personnel spent the weekend cataloging debris and moving it to a NASA facility on Wallops Island for secure and weather resistant storage.  The AIB is busy developing a fault-tree and timeline of key events during the launch and reconciling data from multiple sources. 

Thompson said last week that he expects a likely cause to be determined within "days not weeks," though it will take longer to identify the root cause.  He could not estimate when Antares launches would resume other than to say that the next launch, originally scheduled for April 2015, would be delayed between three months in a best case scenario or, he hopes, not more than a year.

This third cargo launch to ISS, Orb-3, was part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to send 20 tons of supplies to the ISS through 2016.  It was the fifth launch of Antares; the first four were successful.  This launch was delayed by one day because a sailboat 40 miles off the Virginia coast was in a restricted zone that had to be clear of vessels due to range safety considerations.

Orbital said on Friday that it has begun developing a "comprehensive plan to maintain the cargo supply line between Earth" and the ISS.  

SpaceX is the other U.S. company that delivers cargo to ISS for NASA.   One of its Dragon spacecraft just returned from the ISS and the next is scheduled for launch on December 9.  Russian and Japanese cargo spacecraft also resupply ISS crews.  A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft arrived at the ISS last Wednesday on a regularly scheduled flight.

NASA has not been able to take cargo or people to the ISS itself since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

NTSB: Uncommanded Feathering Occurred on SS2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2014 (Updated: 03-Nov-2014 12:36 AM)

Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said this evening (November 2) that investigators determined today as a matter of fact -- not necessarily cause -- that "uncommanded feathering" took place on SpaceShipTwo (SS2) after it dropped away from its carrier aircraft and fired its rocket engine.  The engine, fuel tanks and oxidizer tank were all recovered today and all are intact with no signs of burn-through or of being breached.

SS2 crashed on October 31, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury, seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold, and destroying the spaceplane.  SS2 was built by Scaled Composites and owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, a business created to take anyone who can afford a $250,000 ticket on a brief, suborbital flight to space.

Until now, speculation has focused on a new fuel used on this test flight, but the facts released by Hart tonight cast a very different light on what may have happened.  He stressed repeatedly however that these are facts, not a judgment about the cause of the accident.

Feathering is a technique used after the vehicle reaches apogee (its highest altitude) to increase drag as it returns to Earth.  The pilots need to take two steps in order to deploy the feathers (tail booms):  the lock/unlock handle must be moved from lock to unlock, and the feathering handle then must be moved to the feather position.  The lock/unlock handle is not supposed to be moved to the unlock position until the vehicle reaches Mach 1.4.

In this case, however, telemetry and video from a camera inside the cockpit show that the co-pilot moved the lock/unlock handle to the unlock position when the vehicle was approximately at Mach 1.0 instead of Mach 1.4.  The second step, moving the feathering handle to the feather position, never took place.  Hart therefore described this as "uncommanded feathering."

Until then, the mission was proceeding normally.  SS2 dropped away from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and fired its rocket engine. The engine fired for 9 seconds at which point telemetry and video showed that the lever was moved from lock to unlock and two seconds later the feathers deployed even though the feather handle was not moved to the feather position.  Shortly thereafter, telemetry was lost and the vehicle disintegrated.

The bottom line of these facts, then, is that the lock/unlock handle was moved prematurely, the second step ordinarily needed to deploy the feathers -- moving the feathering handle -- did not occur, the feathers deployed nonetheless, and the vehicle broke apart shortly thereafter.

Stressing again that these are facts, not a determination of cause, he said months of investigation lie ahead and the NTSB will be looking at training issues, whether there was pressure to continue testing, the safety culture, design, procedures, and many other issues.

Hart said the NTSB would hold another press briefing tomorrow, time TBD.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 2-8, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2014 (Updated: 02-Nov-2014 05:45 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 2 - 8, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress returns on November 12.

During the Week

News can be expected throughout the week on the October 28 Antares launch failure and the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident.  Orbital Sciences Corporation is leading the Antares investigation and has been posting regular updates on its website.   The National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) is leading the SS2 investigation, where one of the two pilots died and the other is hospitalized.   NTSB held two briefings yesterday (at 9:00 am and 8:00 pm Pacific Time), and a third is scheduled for tonight (Sunday) at 8:00 pm PT (11:00 pm ET).  We will post information on any briefings that we learn about during the week on the calendar.

On the national scene, the biggest news in the coming week will be, of course, Tuesday's mid-term elections.  Republicans are expected to retain control of the House and could win control of the Senate as well, although some races are very close, legal challenges may by filed against some state voter registration laws or processes, and there is a chance there could be as many as four Independents in the Senate (there are two now), which could sway the balance of power depending on which party they choose to caucus with (the two incumbent Independents caucus with the Democrats).  All of that makes prognostication especially difficult and could mean that the issue of which party controls the Senate may not be settled on Tuesday.


Lots of other interesting events are on tap, too.  Certainly the most intriguing one is a panel discussion sponsored by the American Chemical Society and American University on Thursday on "The First and Final Frontiers: The Overlapping Technology Policies of Farming and Space Exploration."   The Washington Space Business Roundtable's luncheon later that day also should be particularly interesting.  Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is the speaker.  Between SNC's lawsuit against the government over the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract awards and this past week's commercial space setbacks (though they did not involve SNC), Sirangelo's take on the present and future of commercial space should be thought provoking.   It's a busy day.  The ACS/AU event is from 10:00-11:00 am ET, NASA is having a briefing at KSC (watch on NASA TV) at 11:00 on the planned December launch of the Orion capsule on its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), and the WSBR luncheon starts at 11:30.

On Saturday, NASA, in partnership with the University of Arizona, will hold the first of two "citizen forums" on the Asteroid Initiative.  This first one is in Phoenix.  The second, on November 15, is in Boston.  People had to apply to participate in person and that process is closed; those chosen are being paid $100.  Anyone else can participate online (no stipend), but must register. 

Sunday, November 2

Monday, November 3

Monday-Tuesday, November 3-4

Tuesday, November 4


Wednesday-Thursday, November 5-6

Thursday, November 6

Saturday, November 8


NTSB Says SS2 Debris Field Indicates In-Flight Breakup, Scaled Identifies Pilots

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Nov-2014 (Updated: 02-Nov-2014 12:10 AM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said tonight that the wreckage from the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash yesterday is spread over 5 miles and that indicates an in-flight breakup.  Earlier today, Scaled Composites identified the two SS2 pilots:  Michael Alsbury, who perished, and Peter Siebold, who is hospitalized.

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart provided a brief recap of the first day of the NTSB investigation at an 8:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) press conference (11:00 pm EDT).   This was the second NTSB briefing of the day, the first one having been held at 9:00 am PDT.  Another NTSB briefing will be held tomorrow.

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson also held a news conference earlier today.

SS2 crashed shortly after 10:00 am PDT yesterday (October 31).  The reusable spaceplane separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft as expected after reaching approximately 45,000 feet, but something happened shortly thereafter that caused it to crash to Earth.

Hart said that one decision made today was who would be parties to the investigation.  NTSB has the lead, and the FAA. Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic are participants.  SS2 was owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and built by Scaled.   The two pilots were Scaled employees.

Scaled said in a press release that Siebold was the SS2 pilot and Alsbury the copilot.  Alsbury died at the scene.  Siebold, who is director of Flight Operations for Scaled,  is "alert and talking with his family and doctors," the company reported.

Hart was asked at the press conference why one of the pilots was able to eject and the other did not.   Hart replied that it is not clear how the surviving pilot got out the plane.   One parachute was found at the crash site, and the other was not deployed, he said, but there is not enough information yet to determine exactly what happened.   The NTSB has not interviewed Siebold, the survivor, on the recommendation of his doctors.

When asked if the NTSB has any findings that could affect the short-term future of the program, Hart stressed that the NTSB is investigating this accident and it does not prevent the operator from doing anything.  It is "completely up to the operator" as to what to do in the short term.  The accident investigation will determine the cause of the accident and make recommendations to avoid another occurrence, he said.

A lot of data and information will be available to investigators, he added.  SS2 had six cameras, WhiteKnightTwo had three, a range camera at nearby Edwards Air Force Base was used, a chase airplane had video and radar, and telemetry with over 1,000 parameters is available.  It will take some time to comb through all of that data, he said, stressing that he was not complaining, that having so much data is a good thing.

The debris is spread over a 5 mile area from northeast to southwest, which indicates an in-flight breakup, he said.  The left and right tail booms fell in the northeast corner, then the fuselage with oxidizer and fuel tanks, then the cockpit, and then the engine itself.  Investigators looked at the fuel tanks today, but not the engine.

He said investigators likely would be on-scene for 4-7 days.  That will be followed by a period for collecting facts off-scene and then analysis, with the entire investigation taking about 12 months.