SpaceShipTwo had exploded.
At least that’s what it looked like from our vantage point at Jawbone Station on that fateful Halloween morning ten months ago. And that’s what it looked like in Ken Brown’s photos. Ken had been standing next to me, training his telephoto lens on the small spacecraft nine miles overhead.
It appeared that something had gone wrong with the motor, the nitrous oxide tank, or some other part of the propulsion system. There was a flash of red, with a giant cloud of nitrous oxide escaping from the breached tank. Then pieces of the ship started falling all over the High Desert.
As I watched clouds of dust thrown up as the debris hit, it seemed that everyone’s worst nightmare had occurred. Two weeks earlier, I had sat in an office at the Mojave spaceport and predicted exactly this would happen to two friends visiting from Los Angeles.
A Gnawing Fear
This flight test of SpaceShipTwo was different from the previous three powered ones. They were testing a new type of hybrid engine for the first time, one that burned nylon instead of rubber. It wasn’t simply a change in the fuel grain – there had been significant alterations in the propulsion system and the ship. People were on pins and needles about how the new system would perform in a planned burn of 38 seconds, nearly twice that of any previous flight test.
There was also the aggressive flight test schedule. After more than nine years filled with setbacks and delays, Virgin Galactic suddenly seemed to be in a big rush for Scaled Composites to complete the flight test program so commercial flights could begin. This was to be done by the end of 2014. There would be a handful of additional flights, then Richard Branson and his son, Sam, would climb aboard to inaugurate commercial service.
It struck me as a dangerous approach. There weren’t enough powered flights to really wring out the ship, and to find all the flaws in it that could destroy the vehicle, its crew and passengers. It didn’t appear that the nylon hybrid – which was only announced at the end of May – had been sufficiently tested on the ground. I genuinely feared they would push the technology, the pilots or both too far and too fast, resulting in a tragedy.
I knew I was not alone in feeling this way. Others had the same concerns. I couldn’t do anything to slow things down. I hoped that they could.
Over the summer, I had seriously considered leaving Mojave. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here if the worst happened. From a journalistic standpoint, it would be one helluva story. Emotionally, it would be very difficult to take.
As October wore on amid signs that another powered flight was imminent, I had trouble sleeping at night and concentrating during the day. By the afternoon of Oct. 30, it was clear they would be flying the next day. Ken and I made plans to meet up at Jawbone Station, a visitors’ center 20 miles north of Mojave, where we would have a good view of the drop. I drifted off to an uneasy sleep around midnight.
So, knowing all that I knew, and seeing what we had seen on that awful fall morning, I concluded SpaceShipTwo had suffered a catastrophic engine failure. I would turn out to be very wrong. It would take a while to learn the truth.
The Truth Emerges
The first clues came when news photos were shown of the main section of the fuselage with the nitrous tank. It didn’t show any evidence of an explosion or fire. That didn’t rule out a failure of the propulsion system, but it raised questions about whether SpaceShipTwo had blown up. And if it hadn’t exploded, what had brought it down?
We had tried to reach this piece of debris after the crash. Ken had managed to follow it as it crashed down miles away to the north near Koehn Lake. But, our efforts were for naught.
First, we were blocked by paving work on the Redrock Randsburg Road. A construction crew directed us toward a detour. We took a right onto Neuralia Road, then a left after the railroad tracks onto Cantil. About halfway down toward the tiny crossroads village of Cantil, we came across a grisly scene.
SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit had slammed into the road, narrowly missing two truck drivers who had passed that spot seconds before. One of the first things I noticed after getting out of the car was a boot with a foot in it. Not far away was the co-pilot’s seat with what remained of co-pilot Mike Alsbury.
Traumatizing is an accurate description for the experience. I had arisen in the pre-dawn darkness four hours earlier at 6 a.m. I was so shaken I would not sleep until 10 p.m. the following day – a stretch of 40 hours. Ken was likewise shaken up; he later told me later that he got maybe an hour of sleep the first night after the crash.
I had thought that anticipating an accident would somehow make it easier to deal with when the time came. In some ways, maybe it did. I wasn’t at all surprised. The anticipation probably infused the accident with layers of meanings and emotions that were difficult to process given the shock I felt and the uncertainty over what happened.
With our path to the main wreckage blocked, we headed back toward Mojave after photographing the crash site. Ken had to file his pictures, and I had reporting to do. We couldn’t do either of those things out there. The area was so remote we barely had cell service.
The only official news that Friday came during a brief press conference at 2 p.m., about four hours after the accident. Scaled Composites and Mojave spaceport officials indicated the ship didn’t blow up. They did not go any further than that, undoubtedly in deference to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation that would start the following morning.
They already knew the cause of the accident from the data they had received from the ship, including cockpit video. But, they were unable to reveal what they had learned. The rest of us were left to speculate as to what had caused the crash.
It wasn’t until Sunday evening – more than two days after the accident – that NTSB officials revealed that Alsbury had unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather device too early during powered ascent. The spacecraft’s twin tail booms deployed due to aerodynamic forces. The ship hadn’t blown up; it had broken up.
It was jaw dropping. I couldn’t believe it. An experienced, highly skilled test pilot like Alsbury making such an elementary mistake. How could that have happened? I would have never imagined it.
Nor, it appears, did the engineers at Scaled Composites. They had built the feather system without a fail-safe system. As the NTSB put it in its investigative report released last month:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was Scaled Composites’ failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle.
And therein lay the real tragedy of SpaceShipTwo’s feather device. It was a safety system designed to deploy during re-entry to keep the spacecraft and its occupants from burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan had designed it in response to an X-15 accident that had killed pilot Mike Adams in 1967. The rocket plane had entered the atmosphere sideways and broken up in hypersonic flight; Rutan was determined to make sure that would not happen to any of his spacecraft.
That singular focus, however, led to less attention on what could happen if the feather was deployed earlier than planned. The designers just assumed it would never happen. They were very wrong. And the result was tragic.
In flight test, you can worry immensely about the obvious things. But, it’s sometimes the things you don’t see coming that can kill you.
A Learning Period’s Painful Lessons
Back in 2004, an emerging commercial human spaceflight industry fresh off the triumph of Rutan’s SpaceShipOne convinced Congress to approved an eight-year moratorium (since extended) on government regulations. The industry needed a learning period during which to experiment with different technologies without the burden of government requirements. The Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight would be strictly limited to responding to accidents and close calls.
Inherent in this approach was a central conceit: industry had little to learn from government’s experience in these matters. Bureaucrats would be a millstone around industry’s neck – slowing things down, driving up costs, and contributing little or nothing toward making systems efficient or safe. There was an arrogance that said: get out of our way, we know what we’re doing. We can do this better than you can.
Eleven years later, the results of this approach are decidedly unimpressive. SpaceShipTwo has had as many casualties – four – as powered flights, with none of them coming anywhere near space. In addition to Alsbury, three Scaled Composites engineers died during a ground test in 2007. From that tragedy, Scaled Composites learned that nitrous oxide flowing under high pressure can explode on its own, with no fuel present.
Scaled also learned that it is best to design your rocket engine first and then design your spaceship around what it can do rather than the other way around. That lesson has resulted in years of delay and cost Richard Branson and Aabar Investments hundreds of millions of dollars.
Last year, Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company also learned that storing flammable fuel grain next to nitrous oxide tanks is a very, very bad idea. The companies narrowly avoided a catastrophe when a fire broke out and threatened to rupture the tanks. Such a blast could have taken out a good section of the Mojave Airport and the firefighters who battled the blaze.
The NTSB report on the SpaceShipTwo accident is chock full of lessons about how to build a space plane, the FAA’s failures to properly perform its limited oversight responsibilities, and the shortcomings in emergency response planning that left injured pilot Pete Siebold lying in the desert for half an hour before the first helicopter arrived.
Some people were – and still are – quite angry over my errors after the loss of SpaceShipTwo. I get that. It wasn’t my finest hour. I could, and should, have done much better. But, things were chaotic and uncertain. And mine wasn’t the worst error made that day – or during the decade-long life of the SpaceShipTwo program.
I learned some valuable lessons from my failures. First, what you think you see is not necessarily what actually happened. Your eyes can deceive you, especially during sudden, fast-moving events in which things happen literally in the blink of an eye.
I also learned that in aviation accidents, your first instincts about what caused a crash can be wrong. It is best to reserve judgment and let all the facts come before rendering a verdict.
These were painful but necessary lessons. The pain paled in comparison to that felt by Alsbury’s family, friends and colleagues. I always keep them foremost in my thoughts when I think about this accident. This program has had a terrible human cost.