By Douglas Messier
The crash of SpaceShipTwo and the tragic loss of Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury were stark reminders that despite all the promises about the safety of new space tourism vehicles, space travel is a dangerous business where death can come in seconds.
If outsiders were stunned by the tragedy, it had a sickeningly familiar feel to long-time Mojave denizens. Mike Alsbury was not the first Scaled employee to die developing SpaceShipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline. He was the fourth. Three engineers preceded him seven years earlier in a horrific accident at the Mojave spaceport.
The 2007 tragedy was quite different from the one that occurred over Jawbone Canyon on Halloween. The response to it was both different and eerily familiar.
On the hot summer afternoon of July 26, 2007, Scaled Composites engineers prepared to conduct a cold-flow test of nitrous oxide, the oxidizer that would be used for SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rubber motor. The goal of the test was to see how the nitrous flowed through the engine. The test was characterized as a cold flow because it would not ignite any fuel.
Seventeen people were present in the test area that afternoon. The five people controlling the test were at a mobile control unit located safely behind an earthen berm about 430 feet from the test stand. However, the area around the stand wasn’t clear; 11 workers were standing around a chain-link fence near the test rig to observe the 15-second cold flow.
Three seconds into the test, the nitrous oxide tank exploded. Three Scaled Composites engineers — Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Glenn May — were killed, and three others — Keith Fritsinger, Yevgeny Gisin and Jason Kramb — were hospitalized with critical injuries.
In a subsequent press conference, Scaled Founder Burt Rutan said he was completely stunned by the explosion. “We just don’t know,” Rutan said when asked what caused the accident.
“We felt it was completely safe. We had done a lot of these [tests] with SpaceShip One,” Rutan said, adding that nitrous oxide was usually “not considered a hazardous material.”
Scaled Composites would later claim in a statement that “the body of knowledge about nitrous oxide (N2O) used as a rocket motor oxidizer did not indicate to us even the possibility of such an event.”
That claim has been strongly disputed by an outside group of experts that examined the accident. Their report on the incident raised serious questions about whether Rutan really understood the dangers of the hybrid engine at the heart of the space plane he was building for Branson.
“This would seem to indicate either a lack of due-diligence in researching the hazards surrounding N2O (negligence) or a wilful disregard of the truth,” the group concluded in response to Scaled’s claim.
The explosion was a terrible shock to Scaled, which had never lost anyone before on the ground or in the air. The company mourned its dead, held a private ceremony for them, and set up relief funds for their families, just as it would later do for Alsbury’s wife and two children. A year later, a memorial to the three men was unveiled in Mojave’s Legacy Park.
There are some significant differences between 2007 and 2014. While the SpaceShipTwo crash played out live in the full glare of a media spotlight with live Twitter updates, the nitrous oxide explosion happened on a secluded test stand. Alsbury was hailed as an American hero who died pushing the frontiers of high-speed flight like so many other test pilots had in the past in the skies over the Mojave.
By contrast, Scaled characterized the 2007 accident as an industrial accident. This was true in that the explosion took place on the test stand, not in the sky. And Cal/OSHA — the government agency that investigates workplace accidents — was in charge of the investigation, not the National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB).
The industrial accident language found its way into a brief press release about the accident issued by Scaled Composites partner, Virgin Galactic.
Scaled Composites report that during a routine cold flow Nitrous Oxide test, an explosion occurred which tragically killed three of their employees. It is confirmed that the investigation will be carried out by the California Occupational Safety & Health Administration as an industrial accident. Virgin Galactic sends its deepest sympathies to all those involved and reiterates its commitment to the project and technology.
It was all rather perfunctory. Our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and colleagues of the dead — whoever they were. No names given. No mention of the three engineers who lay critically injured in the hospital. Not a word of sympathy from the eminently quotable Branson.
It’s possible the statement was issued before the names of the dead and injured were released. However, there appears to have been no update to the statement, nor any subsequent press releases issued about the accident. In short, it was an industrial accident at Scaled that had little to do with Virgin Galactic. That was very different from the reaction to Alsbury’s death.
If Virgin Galactic’s statement lacked feeling, Peter Diamandis managed to take the industrial accident theme to an even colder level.
Peter Diamandis, founder of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation that awarded SpaceShipOne $10 million, said the tragedy should not ground the SpaceShipTwo project.
“This was an industrial accident. This has nothing to do with spaceflight,” he said. “I have complete confidence that they are building a safe and robust spaceship.”
This was a thoroughly ill-informed statement. And it was shocking to hear it from Diamandis, whose $10 million Ansari X Prize had led to SpaceShipOne and helped to make space tourism a credible idea.
For one, neither Rutan nor Cal/OSHA had determined what had gone wrong yet. So, any conclusions were premature. Diamandis wasn’t involved in the engine program, so anything he said wouldn’t have been very well informed.
Second, a cold-flow test of the oxidizer they were going to use in the hybrid engine had everything to do with spaceflight. The whole reason they did the test was to find out how the nitrous oxide performed. It failed. And that had serious implications for the SpaceShipTwo program.
Blackwell, Ivens and May did die advancing the cause of manned spaceflight. However, Diamandis’ formulation denied them of the benefit of that honor. They might as well have died in an oil refinery accident. Or gotten run over by a truck.
In the end, Diamandis really wasn’t critiquing the accident; he was shilling for Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. He had a good reason to do so. SpaceShipTwo was the only vehicle to come out of the Ansari X Prize. If the program fails, the entire effort will look like a curious historical footnote. And Diamandis’ reputation would be significantly diminished.
Jumping forward seven years, we find both similarities and differences in the ways that Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic and Diamandis reacted after SpaceShipTwo crashed.
Rather than distancing himself from this second tragedy, Branson immediately jumped into his private jet and flew to Mojave from his Necker Island home. That made sense: the ship had been destroyed, a pilot was dead, and the program was in crisis. Scenes of devastation were all over the airwaves and the Internet. This was a much higher profile accident.
Even as he was rushing to take charge of the situation in Mojave, Branson was also seeking to distance Virgin Galactic from its partner in Mojave. The company put out a press release pointedly referring to the accident as having been a Scaled Composites flight test.
This claim was counter to how it has described earlier flight tests as joint efforts between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. It also was not true; Virgin Galactic was deeply involved in the fatal flight test.
Once Branson was on the ground, he proceeded to make a series of claims that raised serious questions about his credibility and basic grasp of what Virgin Galactic and Scaled are doing in Mojave.
His claim the companies were carrying out the “biggest test program…in commercial aviation history” was not even remotely true. It was shocking coming from the owner of multiple airlines whose planes are much more thoroughly tested than SpaceShipTwo ever would be under the FAA’s much looser regulations for commercial space vehicles.
Branson also said he had never met Alsbury. This was demonstrably untrue. Alsbury had been co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in 2013, a test that Branson had witnessed personally. He had congratulated the pilots after the flight. There were witnesses and pictures.
Branson later backed off the claim. It remains a mystery as to why he made it in the first place. Perhaps it was the stress associated with the accident coupled with sleep deprivation. Or was it some form of distancing mechanism?
Thanks to Twitter, we can better track Diamandis’ reaction to and claims about the SpaceShipTwo accident. He began by expressing deep sympathies for the families, friends and colleagues of the pilots. Then he discussed the perils of frontiers and the inevitable loss of life in opening them.
Americans forget that 500 yrs ago thousands of European gave their lives to open the Americas& 200 yrs ago, we risked lives to open the west — Peter Diamandis (@PeterDiamandis) November 1, 2014
This is what exploring is all about. We risk our lives for what we believe in. This is the American way, the explorer’s way. — Peter Diamandis (@PeterDiamandis) November 1, 2014
At the same time, he was back to shilling for Virgin Galactic, reassuring everyone that SpaceShipTwo would be perfectly safe to fly on.
I fully trust Virgin Galactic with my safety when my turn to fly on SpaceShipTwo materializes. — Peter Diamandis (@PeterDiamandis) November 1, 2014
That’s a bit of a mixed message there. Pioneering the space frontier was dangerous. But, somehow Virgin Galactic would be perfectly safe? That doesn’t make any sense unless one assumed all the accidents would occur during the flight test program. That never happens.
Diamandis also apparently had not been looking closely at SpaceShipTwo flight test schedule. The plan had been to fly the vehicle as few as five times with a brand new engine before putting Branson and his son, Sam, aboard for the inaugural commercial flight. That would have been a very compressed flight test program.
After the NTSB reported that Alsbury had unlocked the feather early and that there were no obvious signs of engine problems with SpaceShipTwo, Diamandis had the following to say.
Despite the SS2 tragedy, results are the best they could be. Design requires no changes & the engine worked perfectly. Go Virgin Galactic!
— Peter Diamandis (@PeterDiamandis) November 3, 2014
The Tweet came off as insensitive. Worse, it went beyond what the NTSB had stated. It was far too early in the investigation to conclude that the engine, which had fired for only 10 seconds, had performed “perfectly”. Nor could anyone say at the point that SpaceShipTwo would require no design changes.
Despite spending years promoting commercial spaceflight, Diamandis seemed to have little grasp of the technology involved or what is required to properly flight test it. Or he simply wasn’t letting those realities get in the way of promoting the industry and supporting Virgin Galactic.
And that is a shame. The loss of SpaceShipTwo and Mike Alsbury — the second tragedy to hit this program — should have been a wake up call for a much more sober discussion of the risks that future space tourists will face. Space is difficult — and dangerous. If we try to pretend otherwise, we’re going to be constantly surprised when tragedy occurs.