Dodging Disaster: A Fire, the North Star and the Mojave Code

Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Fire outside of The Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port on June 5, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

MOJAVE, Calif. – Luke Colby was horrified.

A fire had erupted outside the old Derringer hangar. Pallets of rubber fuel grain were burning, sending a thick cloud of black smoke into the blue sky over the Mojave Air and Space Port. Firefighters from Kern County Fire Station 14 were doing their best to put out the fire by spraying it down with water.

It seemed like the logical thing to do. And it would have been, if the fire had been located almost anywhere else.

The blaze was only feet away from a large storage tank full of nitrous oxide. Parked right alongside was a nitrous oxide tanker truck. If the tanks overheated, the explosion would take out everything in the immediate vicinity – the hangar, nearby buildings, the firefighters – and send debris flying a quarter mile or more in all directions.

Colby had seen it all happen before, seven years earlier in the worst accident to ever occur at the spaceport. He had stood by helplessly as a nitrous tank exploded. Three of his co-workers were killed. This had the potential to be even worse. Colby was determined that it would not happen again.

Hose down the tanks, he yelled to the firefighters. Hose them down now!*

*****

Deep into my writing, I had no idea of the growing danger outside. The office I was in had windows that faced away from where the fire blazed. It wasn’t until I noticed a Facebook text sent by a friend that I realized anything was happening.

Loud boom from airport, followed by billowing black smoke.

What? I thought I’d heard something. A sonic boom, maybe. And a siren, too. But, an explosion? There were so many loud noises at the airport that I barely paid them much attention.

As I ran outside to take a look, a wave hit me that felt like an electric oven on preheat. It wasn’t from the fire; this was simply what we called Thursday in Mojave. Summer was still two weeks away, but the desert gave the calendar no respect.

Rounding the corner of the building, I saw it. A big cloud of black smoke rising from the west ramp of a hangar used by Virgin Galactic’s fully-owned subsidiary, The Spaceship Company. A quarter mile away. Maybe less. The fire blazed right in the heart of the airport’s industrial park.

One of the airport’s security guards was in a car on Airport Boulevard, yelling out something to me and handful of other people watching the fire. I ignored him as I snapped a couple of pictures of the billowing column of smoke.

Evacuate the airport now, the guard yelled out again. The fire was near a nitrous tank that was in danger of exploding.

Oh shit!

I ran. I ran to my car, started it up, and drove right off the airport. I would watch the blaze burn out from the safety of the Mariah Inn’s parking lot. There would be no explosion.

*****

A few hours after the fire, a statement appeared on The Spaceship Company’s Facebook page:

“This afternoon, a small fire broke out on a pallet of scrap material in an outside area of the Mojave Air and Space Port near a building used by The Spaceship Company. The local fire department was quickly called in, and successfully extinguished the fire. All airport and tenant employees are safe and accounted for. As a precaution, because the fire was located in the proximity of an oxidizer storage tank, employees were briefly evacuated from nearby buildings. Airport and company officials are working to determine the cause of the fire.

Our sincere thanks go out to the local fire department team for their quick work.

– Stuart Witt (CEO and General Manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port) and George Whitesides (CEO of Virgin Galactic and of The Spaceship Company)

A small fire? Not really. But, that wasn’t the important part.

In the proximity of an oxidizer storage tank? Well, yes…if proximity meant right next to it. After things had settled down, I managed to drive past the site. The fire had left a really deep black mark on the concrete that lay within 10 feet of the stationary nitrous oxide tank.

Scene of the fire. (Credit: Google Maps/Douglas Messier)
Scene of the fire. (Credit: Google Maps/Douglas Messier)

The local fire department…quickly extinguished the blaze? With a little bit of help, of course. They were lucky to be alive. But, that wasn’t mentioned in the statement.

A pallet of scrap material? Rubber fuel grain, actually. The stuff that burns in a rocket engine. It had just been sitting out there in the desert. Next to an oxidizer tank. With summer on its way. When temperatures could reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

*****

Holy shit! How stupid are these people?

That was the general reaction from people I knew around the airport. “That fire was egregious,” a friend remarked angrily, questioning why there wasn’t a clear safety zone around the tanks.

The tanks were in the very heart of the airport. Where everyone worked. There were buildings nearby that were occupied by Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company, Interorbital Systems and the National Test Pilots School. A Kern County hazardous waste collection site was nearby.

So was XCOR’s 1940’s era wooden hangar – which contained nearly all of the company’s employees and 15 years worth of its collective work, including a half-finished Lynx space plane. Also up on the flight line is Mercy Air, the area’s only air ambulance service, It was likely located in a World War II era wooden hangar.

If they were going to place nitrous oxide tanks in the industrial park, they should at least do it properly. The fuel tanks at either end of Sabovitch Street were set far apart from any structures and protected by walls, fences and locked gates. The areas around them were not used for storage.

The incident did little to instill confidence in anyone about Virgin Galactic’s safety culture. Here was a company that assured customers that safety was its North Star. That it wouldn’t fly until it was ready. Virgin claimed on its website Rutan’s technology could lead to spaceships thousands of times safer than anything that had ever flown. And, yet it had trouble safely storing nitrous oxide and the fuel grain to power this great spaceship they were building.

*****

Hadn’t anyone learned anything from the last incident with nitrous oxide? That was the other question floating around the spaceport.

Seven years earlier, on an even hotter day in July, Scaled Composites ran a cold flow test using nitrous oxide. The purpose was to flow the gas through a new valve in order to test it. There would be no fuel present, so Scaled didn’t consider the test hazardous. A safety zone wasn’t needed. Eleven workers stood near the test stand to watch the cold flow.

Seconds into the test, the test rig exploded with the force of a bomb. Debris was thrown for a half mile in all directions. Three Scaled engineers – Glen May, Todd Ivens and Eric Blackwell — were killed in the blast. Three employees were hospitalized, and others suffered lesser injuries.

In the wake of the tragedy, Scaled officials had claimed there was no way to know that nitrous oxide could go off under the conditions used in the test. This was a curious claim given that nitrous oxide is a mono-propellant, meaning it can go off on its own. That was fairly well known already.

Fragment of a ruptured nitrous oxide tank thrown clear of an explosion in Eindhoven. (Credit: Konrad Munke)
Fragment of a ruptured nitrous oxide tank thrown clear of an explosion in Eindhoven. (Credit: Konrad Munke)

And there had been previous incidents. In 2001, a mobile trailer being filled with nitrous oxide from a storage tank exploded at a facility in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. (Nitrous Oxide Trailer Rupture) The pump had been switched on without cooling it down first, causing it to overheat. Five minutes into the filling operation, the trailer exploded.

Buildings at the plant were destroyed by the blast wave and resulting fire. Ten people inside and outside the adjoining facility were slight injured by flying glass and metal splinters. A large part of the trailer was found 400 meters (1,312 ft) away. The driver of the trailer survived only because he had left the area in violation of safety protocols.

Nitrous oxide trailer fragment with destroyed building in the background in Eindhoven. (Credit: Konrad Munke)
Nitrous oxide trailer fragment with destroyed building in the background in Eindhoven. (Credit: Konrad Munke)

The fuel grain next to the nitrous tank in Mojave was only the half of it. Commentators on Parabolic Arc noted that the ramp had served as a storage area that included all sorts of possible ignition sources. A rack of old hybrid engine casings from the SpaceShipOne program was located there. The ramp had contained a SpaceShipTwo program vehicle mold that had burned in the blaze.

*****

Shortly after the fire, a rather dramatic photograph appeared on Facebook that showed the fire from the vantage point of the flight line. Firefighters were seen in the photo spraying down the nitrous tanks with water, as Colby had told them to do. The fire could be seen billowing from behind the tank.

The picture soon disappeared from Facebook. I immediately knew why. The boss had ordered it removed. Or else.

Publication had violated the unofficial Mojave Code. The code is similar to the popular advertising slogan about Las Vegas: what happens on the flight line, stays on the flight line. You don’t talk about the neighbors or complain about them or expose their mistakes to the world, no matter how stupidly they had acted or how much danger they had just put you in.

Even thought the fire had occurred in the public section of the airport and involved nothing proprietary, the code was still in force. If you didn’t embarrass the neighbors, they wouldn’t embarrass you the next time you did something stupid.

The code even applied after you left the spaceport. Colby, who subsequently left Scaled Composites, refused to comment on his role in the fire when contacted by Parabolic Arc.

The Mojave Code also pleases the spaceport’s management. Under CEO/General Manager Stu Witt’s ‘permission granted’ philosophy, tenants are encouraged to take risks. Officials didn’t burden them with excessive regulations. The airport had no designated safety officer to burden tenants with nettlesome safety inspections to ensure strict compliance with federal and state regulations. It tries to provide them with privacy from public and media scrutiny.

And the truth is, many of the tenants like it that way. They have a similarly libertarian attitude toward risk taking and government oversight. This sentiment is not universally shared, however, Others worry about what they view as a cowboy mentality and a casual attitude toward safety among some of Mojave’s tenants. There’s a thin line between risk taking and recklessness.

The landlord has a practical reason to go easy on the tenants. If it didn’t, someone else would. Mojave’s management lives in constant fear that some other state would come in and poach tenants with offers of financial assistance and looser regulations. XCOR’s decision to move its R&D facility from Mojave to Midland, Texas, for a $10 million incentive package is exhibit 1.

The downside to this approach is that the spaceport was only as safe as its weakest link. In this case, that was Virgin Galactic, which thought nothing of storing flammable fuel grain next to a nitrous oxide tank.

Aside from angering others at the airport, the photo could bring unwanted attention from the Federal Aviation Administration, which was overseeing this whole commercial space industry. Or the worker safety agency, Cal/OSHA.

Short of the tank blowing up, it was difficult to imagine a worse outcome. Federal regulators with their rules and regulations crawling all over the airport, poking into every corner of your hangar, issuing citations and fines for even the slightest infraction. Nothing offended the libertarian ethos of Mojave more than the prospect of tight government oversight. It would be an expensive, time-consuming pain in the ass that wouldn’t necessarily do anything to improve safety. Or so the reasoning went.

There was no upside to letting the photo out into the wilds of social media, where everyone could see it. So, the picture suddenly disappeared without a trace.

*****

Twelve days after the accident, the spaceport’s elected Board of Directors held its second regularly scheduled meeting for June. It presented an opportunity for Virgin Galactic to send someone to explain what had happened.

Doug Shane
Doug Shane

The person sent to explain the incident was Doug Shane, who was Executive Vice President and Executive General Manager of The Spaceship Company. Shane is a respected old hand around Mojave, having been with Scaled since the beginning in 1982 and succeeding Burt Rutan as president when the legendary designer became chairman emeritus and CTO in 2008. Five years later, he had joined Virgin Galactic to take the helm of The Spaceship Company.

Normally, Virgin would have been expected to send its chief safety officer to explain the fire – if it had one. Jon Turnipseed had left his job as vice president of safety six months earlier.Despite the company’s promise to replace him quickly, they had not yet done so. At the time of the fire, Turnipseed was still listed as safety VP on the company’s website – on a consulting basis, officials said – although sources don’t recall seeing him in the hangar during this period.

(Turnipseed would continue to be listed as vice president of safety until Oct. 31, when the entire website except for one page was taken down immediately after SpaceShipTwo was lost. His name was missing when the revamped website was put back up. During this period, Turnipseed also changed his LinkedIn profile to indicate he had retired from Virgin Galactic in January and was now living in Idaho.)

So, it was left to Shane to explain everything. He told the board the fire occurred in rubber fuel grain  stored on wooden pallets. The material had mysteriously caught fire on the hot afternoon; nobody knew why. An employee had fought the fire with an extinguisher and then called in the fire department, he added.

Shane said employees had planned to dispose of the material at a local landfill the day before, Wednesday, June 4. However, the facility had closed before they could do so, and the dump would not reopen until Friday. The material had been stored out there for only 24 hours, Shane said.

The part about the landfill being closed on Wednesday and not reopening until Friday was accurate, according to the schedule on the facility’s website. The rest of it didn’t really track, however.

It all seemed too convenient somehow. A fire breaking out on the one day the materials were stored next to the tank? Who could have seen that coming? Not Virgin. Or the airport. It was just another one of those fluke things like the 2007 tank explosion that nobody could have anticipated. Nobody to blame here.

I had other reasons for skepticism. A reliable source who insisted upon anonymity told me he had seen pallets of fuel grain sitting near the nitrous oxide tanks for months before the fire broke out. And there were other ignition sources located nearby on the ramp, the source said.

Regardless of how long the fuel grain had been stored there, it was a monumentally stupid thing to do.

Given that the spaceport had just dodged a second calamity involving nitrous oxide — and how angry and concerned people were about it – I expected some tough questioning from the five members of the spaceport’s board. Questions such as:

  • Who decided to store flammable fuel grain next to nitrous oxide tanks? And why there?
  • Have you fired this person?
  • Were the materials really only there for 24 hours?
  • Have you stored fuel grain there before?
  • Why were so many things stored on the ramp?
  • Why isn’t Jon Turnipseed here to explain this to us?
  • When are you going to replace him?
  • What is the airport’s plan for the safe storage of nitrous oxide?
  • Was it being followed? If not, why not?
  • Why is this tank in the middle of the airport and not out in the secure test area?

And yet, no one asked anything. The board accepted Shane’s explanation with barely a peep.

Witt praised Kern County firefighters, his staff and himself for their professional response to the fire and their work in evacuating the airport. Board member Allen Peterson, whose National Test Pilot School had been evacuated, seconded those remarks. Again, there was no mention of Colby or the role he played.

With that, Witt and the board thanked Shane for coming by, and he left the meeting. The incident was closed, as far as everyone was concerned.

It was all rather distressing. As someone who had been n the airport during the fire and had also voted for the board members, I had expected much more from them. I felt they owed it to local residents and the airport’s tenants to look into the incident more than they did.

In truth, this was just the Mojave Code in action. No tenant was going to be interrogated in public about its screw-ups. Certainly not one as important as Virgin Galactic. If Mojave’s management had asked any tough questions and said anything critical about the fire, they had done so in private.

*****

Following the fire, procedures around the airport were tightened up, just as they had been after the test stand explosion. The ramp around the nitrous tanks was cleared out, with materials moved to other storage areas. Several months ago, the stationary tank was moved from the industrial park out into the rocket test area. It is now located behind a secure, fenced-in area that requires spaceport-issued badges to enter.

Virgin Galactic appointed Todd Ericson as its new vice president of safety and test after the loss of SpaceShipTwo. Ericson was a good choice for the job; he formerly served as chief of safety for the US Air Force Test Center, where he was responsible for test, ground, weapons and flight safety for all US Air Force experimental and developmental test programs.

Although some key issues have been addressed, the light regulatory approach and the Mojave Code remain in place. The former contributed to the fatal accident in 2007 and the near disaster last year. The latter has helped to shield tenants and the airport from public scrutiny of their mistakes.

Is this any way to run a public airport overseen by a popularly-elected board of directors? Protecting trade secrets is one thing. Protecting negligence and incompetence is quite another. Especially when lives are at stake.

Editor’s Note: Added a clarifying paragraph to the story.

“The code even applied after you left the spaceport. Colby, who subsequently left Scaled Composites, refused to comment on his role in the fire when contacted by Parabolic Arc.”