The Sky is Crying

It’s just after midnight here in Mojave. The past 14 hours have been traumatic for everyone here, for reasons I need not explain.

Friday started out as a typical fall day here. Cool with clear skies and a light breeze. Perfect flying weather.

But, sometime just after 10 o’clock in the morning, something went terribly wrong in the skies over the desert. The pride of a still nascent commercial space industry came apart high in the air for reasons still as yet unknown, falling to Earth in pieces. One brave test pilot died, another struggled to survive.

He was not the first pilot to die in these skies. Many military and civilian test pilots preceded him, putting their lives on the line flying experimental aircraft. It takes a special kind of person to take those risks, and to accept the consequences that go with them. We must never forget their bravery and courage.

My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone at Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and The Spaceship Company who lost a colleague and friend today. And my deepest condolences to his family. Let us all pray that the injured pilot recovers.

I was deeply shaken by what I saw today. What they are experiencing must be a million times worse. And I can’t even imagine that.

There are several theories about what caused this tragedy. Was it the new propulsion system? A structural failure? Or something else nobody saw coming?

That answer will come with time. The NTSB knows what it’s doing.

Healing will take much longer.

Friday began bright and sunny, a day full of promise that quickly brought tragedy. As I write this early on Saturday, a cold hard rain is lashing at my windows. That’s a good thing. We need it.

And it feels right. The sky is crying, adding to an ocean of tears shed here today.

  • Robert Mule

    Hope you’re taking care of yourself Doug. What a horrible thing. All news reports are referring to ejector seats which kind of underplays the incredible good fortune we’ve all had in gaining a survivor from the carnage of forces in the incident. Just terrible terrible news.

  • Stuart

    Well said Doug.

  • Edward Jones

    Good journalism, Doug. We’re counting on you for facts and real news during these trying days of misinformation, spin, and trauma. More than a few of us aren’t yet able to sleep tonight. Thank you.

  • twizell

    Thanks for your reports, keeping up the hard work. Can’t be harder than now, but your reporting is valuable when the subject matter is run by the sultans of spin.

  • John

    So you can check out a new engine and fuel in an open air test-bed on the ground, take it quickly to 50Kft and expect it to instantly ignite and operate flawlessly immediately after a non-uniform cold-soak – or do they actually need a planned pre-drop hiatus of (say,) 30 minutes to allow temperatures within the motor core to equalize. That separation soon after arriving at height is perhaps expecting a bit much of seals, critical clearances within oxidizer pumps and valves etc. Might need a re-think of this aspect of high-level ignition of such engines into instant max thrust production. The ambients and environmentals do need to be factored in with any sort of motor-start in a hostile environment. Rockets expected to produce instant max thrust are just as vulnerable (if not moreso) than any other style of engine.

    Perhaps a WK2 mothership umbilical can feed some warmer air to keep everything at a mutually agreeable complicit state within the Spaceship’s rocket motor and its feed-lines? I’d thought that Morton Thiokol had taught NASA this hard lesson after the freezing of the Shuttle Challenger SRB’s O-Ring seals (cleared for 40 degs F and foolishly launched at 8 degs F back in 1986).

  • SpaceTech

    @ John
    Huh?

  • Very well said. Prayers to the families.

    Bob Clark

  • Jim Oberg

    You were clearly shaken by walking into what until then had only been a half-remembered nightmare, but the sensory overload of the reality would shake any perceptive person. Gather your thoughts, and we can wait to share them.

  • Jim Oberg

    I had to shout to producers on air several times to correct other speakers, I hope I had some local influence. But I also overused the word ;explode’.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Good work Doug. What you saw would be hard for any journalist, but even more so when you know the folks involved.

    My condolences go out to the family and friends of the test pilot who died, what a horrible Halloween it makes for them, now and forever.

    My thoughts and prayers also go out to all the folks in Mojave and I especially pray the other pilot has a complete recovery.

  • Robert Crilly

    Hi John, Any chance you might drop me a line at robert.crilly@telegraph.co.uk. Would be keen to discuss further. Thanks, Rob

  • onsofawno

    Ah ha. Now I know how all of those crackpots are getting on the news.

  • DavidR2014

    Next press conference appears to be at 9am local time.

    twitter.com/MarvinDMartian2/status/528570743554994176

    I believe that this will be a briefing by the NTSB and the FAA about the start of their work in Mojave.

  • DavidR2014
  • David Valentine

    Doug, always grateful for your insights.

  • Sam Moore

    I assume you want the guy who was present at the accident? That’s Doug Messier. The person you just tried to contact is a random commentor on his site.

  • Robert Crilly

    Yes, I have reached out to him as well.

  • Hemingway

    National Transportation Safety Board officials will hold an update today on the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/coming-officials-hold-briefing-spaceshiptwo-crash-n239066

  • Geoff T

    Never thought I’d see these headlines. An incredibly sad day for the families of those involved and the space community as a whole. The future suddenly feels much further away then it did at the start of the week.

    You’ve done a fantastic job of reporting throughout this ordeal Doug, here’s hoping you’re ok.

  • Hemingway

    Michael Alsbury identified as pilot who was killed in tragic Virgin spaceship explosion as investigation gets underway to determine what caused the tragedy.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2816833/Space-hard-worth-persevere-forward-Richard-Branson-addresses-public-arrives-sight-500m-Virgin-Galactic-spaceship-exploded.html

  • mfck

    ” … SpaceShipTwo is a rocket plane that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to use to usher in an era of space tourism for $250,000 per flight for rides into low orbit”

    Suddenly the Virgin Galactic business seems much more interesting! $250k to orbit per… flight?

  • Random airport employee

    A random commenter that really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.