SpaceShipTwo: A Failure of Imagination

Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.
Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.

“I was thinking a little bit about that other space agency, the big guys, I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed.’

“Because I’ll tell ya something….I have a helluva lot bigger goal, and you know what that goal is? I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system that’s at least a hundred times safer than anything that’s ever flown man to space and probably a lot more. I have to do that.”

— Burt Rutan, Oct. 4, 2004

What a difference a decade makes.

Eleven years after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize, Rutan and his company have failed to produce a manned space tourism system capable of actually reaching space.  The only vehicle they built, SpaceShipTwo, flew to all of 71,000 feet on its third powered flight before being destroyed on its fourth last Halloween.

The accident killed co-pilot Mike Alsbury, who made the mistake of unlocking SpaceShipTwo’s feather device too early, causing the spacecraft’s twin tail booms to deploy catastrophically during powered ascent.

Once Alsbury made that fateful error, he and the ship were doomed. There was no fail safe device to prevent the tail booms from moving. The engineers had not installed one; they just didn’t imagine that an experienced test pilot would make a mistake like that.

In its findings last week, the National Transportation Safety Board identified a lack of attention to “human factors” in designing the ship. In short, you must assume that humans will make mistakes and plan accordingly.

I don’t know if people at NASA were saying “we’re screwed” after watching SpaceShipOne glide to a landing in Mojave 11 years ago. It’s a safe bet that after reading the NTSB’s findings last week, some of them were asking, “WTF?” How the hell were Rutan and his team expecting to produce a safer spacecraft 100 times safer with that level of engineering?

Of course, there was an earlier WTF? moment. Alsbury was not the first victim of SpaceShipTwo; he was the fourth. In July 2007, three Scaled Composites engineers died during a cold flow test involving nitrous oxide that tested a system for the spacecraft’s hybrid engine.

The explanation then was much the same as it is now: nobody could possibly have envisioned that nitrous oxide flowing under high pressure could explode on a typically scorching day in the Mojave Desert. This was a questionable assumption given what happened and what was known about nitrous oxide at the time.

Believing the process was safe, the test conductors saw no need to clear the area around the test stand before beginning the cold flow. Eleven employees were standing around the tank when it exploded. In addition to the three deaths, three people were hospitalized and others suffered less serious injuries.

Both accidents resulted from what Apollo astronaut Frank Borman called “a failure of imagination.” Borman used that phrase in Congressional testimony about the Apollo 1 fire, in which astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in their capsule during a practice countdown on the launch pad in 1967.

What Borman meant was that NASA had always assumed a fire would occur would in space. That is where the agency directed most of its efforts. The possibility of one occurring on the launch pad — with the crew locked inside by a set of cumbersome hatches in a pure oxygen environment  — was not seriously considered.

And so it was with SpaceShipTwo’s feather mechanism. It was designed to deploy during the spacecraft’s descent from space so that it would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere safely and not burn up.

The possibility that a pilot might unlock the feather too early during ascent was not considered. Or at least not seriously enough to do something about it. Of course, any changes could cause other problems with the feather device. Design choices are rarely cut and dried.

The tragedy is that a feature designed to safeguard the ship and the people on board produced the opposite result. There are no shortage of people in Mojave who have contemplated that irony since the crash.

A lack of imagination permeated the entire SpaceShipTwo development program. Novices when it came to rocket propulsion, Rutan and his merry men assumed the hybrid propulsion system used on SpaceShipOne could be easily scaled up for a spacecraft three times larger. They set about designing and building the ship first before determining whether they could develop an engine for it. This miscalculation has contributed to a decade of delay.

Burt Rutan’s ego and confidence were at their maximum after winning the Ansari X Prize. He really did think he had NASA on the run. He was the spaceship king; he could do anything. And with Richard Branson’s money, he would. Suborbital spaceflight was just the beginning; trips to orbit and around the moon would follow. They both believed that.

“Virgin Galactic Airways was born a week ago,” Branson said at the post-flight celebration. “Three years from now, Burt has promised to deliver a five seater spacecraft to take people into space. And hopefully it will be the start of a lot of people being able to enjoy space.”

Eleven years after that hopeful boast, the future ain’t what it used to be. Rutan is long gone from Scaled Composites. The company is now a fully owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, the very type of big aerospace colossus Rutan sought to upend.

As for SpaceShipTwo, Scaled is largely out of the picture. Years ago, Scaled sold its shares in The Spaceship Company, the joint venture it established with Virgin Galactic to build future spacecraft. Scaled’s corporate parent, Northrop, wanted no part in the venture.

The Spaceship Company is now a fully owned subsidiary of Virgin Galactic, which now bears ultimate responsibility for building and operating the vehicles.  Scaled is continuing to providing some support, but it is not in charge any more.

This is an unusual position for Branson to be in. The Virgin Group doesn’t build the airplanes it flies or the cell phones it sells. It has little corporate experience in manufacturing anything.

Whether the second SpaceShipTwo will ever reach space remains to be seen. The word here in Mojave is that while the long-troubled hybrid engine program is going well, the spaceship is very heavy and will only get heavier once modifications are completed to ensure the feather doesn’t activate during ascent again.

SpaceShipTwo’s 700 or so ticket holders were promised flights to at least 100 km (62 miles) and guaranteed ones in their agreements to at least 80.4 km (50 miles). It’s unclear at the moment whether the ship will be able to reach the lower altitude.

When commercial flights will begin is another question. Stories have surfaced about customers being told that commercial flights won’t begin until late 2017.  Parabolic Arc has not been able to confirm that information.

Virgin Galactic has said it is hoping to start flight tests of SpaceShipTwo this year, beginning with ground tests followed by glide and powered flights. Sources have told Parabolic Arc the goal appears optimistic.

Some sources have even hinted at an even more uncertain future for SpaceShipTwo program. They say Virgin Galactic will continue work on it for a while — to save face, it is said — but will eventually abandon the program.

I’m not convinced that is true; I think Branson has too much invested in this program in terms of prestige, branding and his own reputation to walk away. Not to mention the prospect of the public relations disaster that would result from leaving New Mexico with an empty $225 million taxpayer-funded spaceport.

However, one has to wonder, after 11 years and more than $600 million spent, how will Branson and his Abu Dhabi investors ever recover their money?

LauncherOne appears to be the answer. It is designed to launch small payloads into space. However, reliable reports indicate the launch vehicle will be dramatically scaled up in size in order to lift heavier payloads and be air launched from a modified 747 aircraft instead of the WhiteKnightTwo.

That is an ambitious effort, one fraught with challenges involving not only the launch vehicle but the 747. It’s a big roll of the dice; if it doesn’t work, Virgin Galactic could fail. It would be Branson’s most spectacular and deadly failure.

Eleven years ago, there were probably no more confident people in the world than Rutan and Branson. Rutan had done what people had thought impossible; Branson’s investment would help make it routine. To day, that hope remains a distant dream.