The Breakup of SpaceShipTwo Frame by Frame From the Tail Boom

Engine start on SpaceShipTwo.(Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Engine start on SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

The following sequence is extracted from a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) document about the loss of SpaceShipTwo last October. The images show the breakup of the vehicle from a camera on one of the tail booms. The premature unlocking of the feather mechanism resulted in aerodynamic pressures deploying the movable tail booms during powered ascent.

NTSB experts did the annotation on the photos and the narrative that accompanies the images. The sequence spans 3 seconds.

Figure 62 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 62 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 62 is the last frame exported from the recording that shows the feather in a undeployed and nominal position. A vertical line was drawn at the intersection of the right boom’s leading edge and the contour of the upper fuselage structure to illustrate the feather’s relative position. In every frame prior to this, the feather position is nominal. By figure 62 and forward, the exported images show positive feather movement indicated by the incongruity between the vertical line and the relative position of the right boom’s leading edge and the contour of the fuselage.

Figure 63 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 63 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 63 contains the first evidence indicating feather position movement. The vertical line from figure 62 was transposed onto figure 63. A slight change in relative position between the right boom leading edge and the upper contour of the fuselage was noted. Additionally, a region on the inner surface of the right boom covered in aluminized Kapton is observed having a slightly larger surface area indicating that the feather had slightly changed position. Slight feather movement was observed in frame 0330 (not shown) using the same techniques (Time 17:07:29.857) but was unable to be clearly presented in a graphics format.

Figure 64 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 64 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 64 shows a portion of the right boom leading edge is visible to the left of the transposed vertical line applied from the previous figures. By this frame, movement of the feather is apparent when compared to figures 62 and 63.

Figure 65 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 65 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 65 shows an increase in feather movement. The vehicle continues to pitch upward.

Figure 66 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 66 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 66 is the last exported frame from the recording that was clear and did not contain video artifacts likely associated with the abrupt removal of power to the camera system. A significant increase in feather position is noted.

Figure 67a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 67a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 67a shows the last frame in the series of exported images where the feather flap hinge line does not exhibit displacement. The feather flap hinge line in this image appears nominal.

Figure 67b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 67b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 67b is the corresponding still frame exported from the boom camera hard drive containing high definition imagery.

Figure 68a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 68a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 68a shows the first frame in the series of exported images where a displacement is exhibited along the feather flap hinge line. From this moment forward, the feather structure appears to become further displaced from the main structure of the vehicle.

Figure 68b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 68b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 68b is the corresponding still frame exported from the boom camera hard drive containing high definition imagery. Figure 68b shows greater detail of the cracks forming on the outboard root fairings and the lightweight “taco” area. The high definition file also shows the Kapton foil failing in the upper left hand corner of the frame, the area near the leading the edge of the left boom structure.

Figure 69a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 69a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 69a shows a field of view change apparent in the recorded images. The nose section is no longer visible. The change in field of view could possibly be attributed to the left boom structure being forced longitudinally outward, rotating inward, or a combination of both. Increased displacement is exhibited along the feather flap hinge line on the left side of the vehicle.

Figure 69b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 69b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 69b is the corresponding still frame exported from the boom camera hard drive containing high definition imagery. The high definition file shows a portion of missing Kapton on the right boom structure and the continued failure of the upper feather flap skin and root fairings. Video artifacting has become present on the recovered high definition file.

Figure 70a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 70a (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 70a shows a further change in the camera’s field of view, only one window is visible near the main fuselage. Evidence of debris separation likely not attributed to video artifacting is near the center of the frame. Further separation between the wing trailing edge and the feather flap is visible.

Figure 70b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 70b (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 70b is the corresponding still frame exported from the boom camera hard drive containing high definition imagery. The high definition file shows the right feather flap structure completely failing. A skin panel from the bottom surface of the vehicle is seen removed from the structure and the left inboard upper root fairing structure is continuing to fail. Figure 70b is the last usable high definition file recovered from the boom camera hard drive. All subsequent recovered imagery contained heavy digital artifacting.

Figure 71 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 71 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 71 shows the upper surface of the right mega strake becoming visible to the camera’s field of view. This indicates the right boom has begun to rotate inboard toward the centerline of the vehicle.

Figure 72 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 72 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 72 shows an increase in the visibility of the upper surface of the right mega strake indicating further rotation of the right boom inboard toward the centerline of the vehicle. An open area is visible near the feather flap hinge line consistent with the color of the surrounding background near the left hand portion of the frame. Additionally, a crack has begun to propagate from the feather flap hinge line into the fuselage near the tail cone section of the vehicle.

Figure 73 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 73 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 73 shows separation of the aft fuselage in the region of the tailcone. The crack along the feather flap hinge line has greatly increased in displacement. Background is visible between separated portions of the vehicle. The tailcone has begun to twist along the region of displacement, indicated by the “Virgin DNA” graphic becoming clearly misaligned (yellow line). Separation along the feather flap hinge line on the right side of the vehicle is also apparent, with background visible in the region of displacement. The right boom has mostly separated from the vehicle’s main structure and has continued to roll inboard with the upper surface of the right megastrake becoming more apparent to the camera’s field of view. The Virgin logo on the right side of the vehicle near the feather flap hinge line is attached to the right boom structure and separated from the vehicle.

Figure 74 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 74 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 74 shows the camera has begun to power down and the recorded image is rapidly losing fidelity. The upper surface of the right mega strake is more apparent, indicating a continued roll inboard toward the center line of the vehicle. The “Virgin DNA” graphic on the upper portion of the main fuselage is in close view, indicating a significant change in displacement between the camera and the main fuselage.

Figure 75 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)
Figure 75 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 75 is an exported image of the first full frame of camera signal loss. It is the second to last frame of recorded images.

  • Bob Redman

    Thank you for your description of the photos as well as the photos themselves. One note; changing the color of the typeface on the photos from red to white would make them much more legible.

  • Kirk

    They are presumably annotated by the NTSB.

    Doug, are these from the NTSB’s final accident report?

  • Douglas Messier

    The photos, annotations and narrative come directly from a NTSB document. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Some of the annotations are hard to ready.

  • Douglas Messier

    They’re from one of the documents NTSB produced as part of the accident investigation. NTSB did the annotation and narrative in this post.

  • Bob Redman

    Thank you for letting me know. Keep up the good work! You always do a wonderful job with these stories.

  • HeftyJo

    Very interesting compilation of photos about the SpaceShip2 disaster, thanks for posting them! But yea, whoever at the NTSB put this Photoshop together needs to be dragged into a graphics design 101 class. The annotations are using terribly small font and an inappropriate use of the color red; surprised they didn’t use Comic Sans too.

  • windbourne

    considering that the craft is white and space is black, neither black NOR white would make a good choice.
    Green might have worked.
    Still, red is not a bad choice considering the black/white contrast.

  • AnAmericanOutraged

    Thankfully, Paris Hilton was not on board this flight.

  • Federico Astica

    Yellow with black outlines would have been the best combination.

  • TimR

    First, my condolences to the family of the lost pilot.

    I’m not an expert on survivability of transonic, high altitude breakups. Applying my understanding of physics and experience flying much more modest aircraft, loss of both pilots would be expected in such an accident. Siebold surviving defied the odds.

    Secondly, it should be emphasized that SS2 is an extremely tough vehicle. Carbon composite construction. Look at the extreme attitude the vehicle took and that the feathering mechanism was able to lock in place under such extreme loads. The thrust vector opposing the drag force plus turbulence.

    Stick and rudder pilots, Rutan, built up Scaled Composites. The cockpit design was too conventional to prevent the pilot error that controlled an aircraft far more powerful than Rutan’s past innovative designs. Fix the human-machine interface and assure the reliability of the engine and this will be a safe commercial flying vehicle.

    Entering passengers of its commercial flights will see “Experimental Aircraft” clearly displayed but Richard, for his family members, friends and complete strangers will demand a regimen of testing that will result in flight readiness reviews in late 2017. It will be worth the wait.

    (Maybe somebody with historical knowledge of the accidents at Edwards could put this accident in perspective)

  • pipersupercub

    Hey Doug, which document were these photos found in? I have been digging through the several reports that have been released and cannot find the one with these photos.