SpaceShipTwo Nearly Crashed in 2011

SpaceShipTwo, ready for its closeup. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo, ready for its closeup. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Ship Entered Inverted Flat Spin
Officials Downplayed Incident at Time
Near Disaster Cancelled Glide Flight at Spaceport America

The SpaceShipTwo vehicle that crashed one year ago nearly met its end three years earlier during a hair-raising flight test that officials at builder Scaled Composites and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic downplayed at the time, according to documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

According to the official account, SpaceShipTwo suffered a tail stall after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft on Sept. 29, 2011. The stall was easily remedied by deploying the vehicle’s feather mechanism, which reconfigures SpaceShipTwo’s twin tail booms for reentry.

That part is true, but something much more frightening happened to the spaceship Scaled Composites was developing and testing for Branson’s company.

After being released from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, the ship and its three-man crew ended up upside down — in an inverted flat spin — struggling to control the vehicle as it “dropped like a rock” toward the desert floor. The admission came during interviews the NTSB conducted with Scaled Composites’ engineers regarding last October’s crash.

After deploying the feather, pilot Mark Stucky,  co-pilot Clint Nichols and flight test engineer (FTE) Wes Persall landed safely after a white-knuckle flight that lasted 7 minutes 15 seconds. It was the shortest flight in the entire flight test program.

Sources say a wing setting had been configured incorrectly. They also said that the flight had been delayed many hours, resulting in a very tired crew.

Scaled Composites did its best to put a giant happy face on the near disaster in its test summary for SpaceShipTwo’s 16th glide flight:

Test card called for releasing the Spaceship from WhiteKnightTwo and immediately entering a rapid descent. Upon release, the Spaceship experienced a downward pitch rate that caused a stall of the tails. The crew followed procedure, selecting the feather mode to revert to a benign condition. The crew then defeathered and had a nominal return to base. Great flying by the team and good demo of feather system.

George Whitesides
George Whitesides

In a Space.com story, Leonard David wrote:

“According to one observer of the craft’s rapid descent, ‘It dropped like a rock and went straight down. Typically, it takes 11 minutes to land, but this time it was only seven minutes before they were on the ground. It was a nail-biter … but that’s how you learn.'”

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive officer and president, said the glide flight included a third seat flight test engineer onboard SpaceShipTwo for the first time. “A good capability for us to have for this phase of test,” he told SPACE.com. “Yes, apparently the tails exhibited stall characteristics in the test — which was a steep nose down maneuver.”

Whitesides confirmed that SpaceShipTwo was ultimately able to carry out a nominal landing.

“Scaled is looking at the data now, but doesn’t anticipate any major issues,” Whitesides said. “This is why we flight test, to fully explore the aerodynamic flight envelope.”

SpaceShipTwo did not fly again for another nine months. Glide flight 17 did not occur until June 26, 2012.

The nearly fatal flight was the first, and only, time there was a FTE aboard SpaceShipTwo despite the heavy workload experienced by the pilot and co-pilot during tests. The “good capacity” that Whitesides talked about was never used again.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Richard Branson pose in front of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Richard Branson pose in front of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Sources say that the nearly fatal test had been a dry run for a glide flight that Virgin Galactic wanted to do three weeks later for the dedication of its Gateway to Space terminal facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin had heavily promoted the event to its future astronauts, one ticket holder said. Officials  said promised there would be something very special without mentioning any details. The event also was attended by actress Kate Winslet, Apollo moon walker Buzz Aldrin, and British royal Princess Beatrice.

Given the buildup, the event proved to be a bit disappointing for the ticket holders. SpaceShipTwo stayed firmly attached to WhiteKnightTwo while in New Mexico. The vehicles served as a great backdrop for photo opportunities by Branson, Gov. Susana Martinez and others.

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Project Bandaloop dancers perform during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The most exciting thing that happened during the dedication was a performance by Project Bandaloop, an aerial dance that performed a vertical ballet against the terminal’s mirrored windows. They were joined by Branson and his children, Holly and Sam. After everyone else had lowered themselves to the ground, Branson dedicated the building by opening a bottle of champagne and taking a big swig.