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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.

NTSB Investigation of SS2 Accident Begins, Branson on Site at Mojave

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Nov-2014 (Updated: 01-Nov-2014 06:08 PM)

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, arrived in Mojave, CA today following the crash of his SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane yesterday.  The crash killed one pilot and seriously injured a second.  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators also arrived today to begin their investigation into what happened.

Branson praised the bravery of test pilots and the resilience of the team at Mojave working on SS2, and profoundly thanked all who had sent notes of condolence and support since the accident occurred at about 10:00 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) yesterday, shortly after SS2 separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft during a test flight.

"We have always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project," he said at the Mojave Air and Space Port this morning PDT.  He stressed that the Virgin Galactic development effort has had safety as its number one priority, and the project's "comprehensive testing program" is designed to "ensure this never happens to the public."

Branson did not release the name of either pilot involved in the accident.   One died at the scene, the other was transported to a hospital.   The Los Angeles Times reported today that the Kern County Coroner's office identified the pilot who died as 39-year-old Michael Alsbury.  He and the injured pilot, whose name has not been released, both worked for Scaled Composites, the company that built SS2 and its predecessor SpaceShipOne. 

"The bravery of test pilots generally cannot be overstated. ... We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly -- to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy," Branson said.

Virgin Galactic's goal is to send anyone who can afford a ticket (currently priced at $250,000) on a suborbital trip to space in a small, reusable spaceplane.  The spaceplane is attached to a large aircraft for ascent to about 45,000 feet.  It then detaches and falls away from the carrier aircraft, lights its rocket engine and travels in an arc to an altitude above 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (though not legally defined) boundary between air and space.  After a few minutes, the spaceplane glides back to land on Earth.  SpaceShipOne achieved this feat twice within seven days in 2004, winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.  Very soon thereafter, Branson, head of the Virgin Group that includes Virgin Airlines, partnered with Scaled to turn the idea into a commercial venture.  The company is now entirely owned by Virgin Galactic, but Scaled continues to be the builder.   SS2 was the first of a planned five spaceplanes.  A second reportedly is already under construction.

Branson sounded determined to discover the problem, fix it, and fly again during his prepared remarks, but when asked if it was "fair to say the dream lives on," he gave a more nuanced answer:  "we owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong, and ... if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on."

Branson spoke shortly after the acting chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, held a press conference essentially to announce that NTSB investigators had arrived on site and the investigation has begun.  The investigator-in-charge is Lorenda Ward and the investigation team includes experts in structures, systems, engines, vehicle performance, and operations. 

Hart noted that this is the first time the NTSB is leading the investigation of a spaceflight accident.   Although it participated in the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accident investigations, he said, "this will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch that involved persons on board."  The NTSB is participating in the investigation of the Antares rocket failure on October 28, but Orbital Sciences Corporation is in charge of that one and it did not have any crew on board.

Another NTSB press conference on the SS2 accident is scheduled for 8:00 pm PDT tonight(Saturday, November 1). 

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes in Mojave Desert; One Killed, One Injured

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2014 (Updated: 31-Oct-2014 11:30 PM)

SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched spaceplane designed to take passengers into space on suborbital journeys, crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight today (October 31, 2014).  Two pilots were aboard.  One died.  The second was taken to a hospital and his condition is unknown.  Their names have not been released.

SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and built by Scaled Composites.  Scaled developed the original SpaceShipOne that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for making two flights within seven days of a reusable spaceplane above 100 kilometers, an altitude that is internationally recognized as the boundary between air and space (there is no legal definition of that boundary).

Both pilots aboard SS2 today worked for Scaled according to that company’s president, Kevin Mickey.  He spoke at a press conference this afternoon, but declined to identify the pilots by name or provide any information about their ages, training or years of experience.  He said only that Scaled employs a team of test pilots who have significant training.  The surviving pilot parachuted down according to Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s goal is to enable anyone able to afford a ticket to travel into space, even if only for a few minutes.  The price is about $250,000 and more than 700 people reportedly have signed up.  Getting to the point of flying passengers has taken much longer than expected, however.  Initially commercial flights were planned by 2007, but that date slipped repeatedly.  Most recently, Branson said the first passenger flight would be in early 2015.

Today’s accident surely will delay any such flights.   The only question is by how many months or years.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is sending a “go” team to investigate the accident.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also is investigating.

SS2 is coupled to an aircraft ("mothership"), WhiteKnightTwo, for ascent to about 45,000 feet altitude.  It then drops away and ignites its rocket engine for the flight to space.  It does not go into orbit.  Instead, it reaches the apex of its arc and then flies back to land on Earth.

The FAA said the failure today began shortly after SS2 separated from WhiteKnightTwo, but exactly what happened must await the investigation.

Eyewitness reports often conflict, and that is true in this case.  What is known for certain is that WhiteKnightTwo and SS2 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 9:20 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) and everything was normal until SS2 dropped away at 10:10 am PDT.

Doug Messier, author of the Parabolic Arc website, was at Mojave and witnessed what happened.   According to his account, tweeted (@spacecom) in real time, SS2 “blew up.  Came down in pieces.”

Conversely, Stuart Witt, Chief Executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port, said at this afternoon’s press conference that he was watching the flight from the ground and there was no explosion.  What alerted him was not what he saw or heard, but what he did NOT see or hear.  There was a “pause” of about 90 seconds after separation, he said, and that is when he began to suspect a problem.

After the press conference, Messier tweeted that he had spoken with a photographer who was photographing the flight and "Pictures show Engine fired fine, then there's a white plume.  He [the photographer] thinks the nitrous oxide tank blew."

This was the 55th flight of SS2, but only four of those, including today’s, were in powered flight and this was the first powered flight since January.  It also was the first using a new plastic-based fuel, replacing a rubber-based fuel.  Speculation is centering on the new fuel as a potential cause of the accident.   Mickey tried to deflect such suspicion at today’s press conference, stressing that the fuel had been “thoroughly tested” on the ground and no anomalies were expected during the test flight.

Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said at the press conference that “space is hard and today was a tough day,” but “we’re going to get through it.”   Whitesides added that Richard Branson was on his way to Mojave and was expected in the morning.  Branson tweeted that he is “flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team” and added later on the company’s website that “Space is hard – but worth it.  We will persevere and move forward together.”

Witt said another press conference would take place tomorrow (Saturday) in late morning or early afternoon PDT.

SS2 is an entirely commercial endeavor that does not involve NASA.  However, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement that “space flight is incredibly difficult and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively, offered their condolences to “the entire Virgin Galactic family.”  Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Science and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, similarly offered his condolences and said he is “confident” that “we will learn” from the investigation of this accident and an unrelated failure of a commercial Antares rocket on Tuesday and take steps to prevent their recurrence.  Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents the district that includes Mojave and is the House Majority Leader, said that the “devastating crash is a reminder how fragile life is in these efforts” but he is confident Virgin Galactic and authorities are “working diligently” to learn about what caused the crash.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Destroyed, Status of Pilots Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2014 (Updated: 31-Oct-2014 02:55 PM)

Virgin Galactic confirmed moments ago that a SpaceShipTwo vehicle was destroyed this afternoon during an in-flight test.  The status of the pilots is not known.

The company issued a statement as follows:

Virgin Galactic's partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today.  During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely.  Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as we are able to do so."

Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

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