So Exactly How Safe Will SpaceShipTwo Be?

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 5 of 6

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the recent roll out of VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic marked a symbolic milestone in its recovery from the October 2014 accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

Two questions loomed large over the celebrity-studded event. When will it fly? And how safe will it be when it does?

Company officials gave no timeline on the first question. Their answers about SpaceShipTwo’s safety differed significantly from previous claims they made over the last 11.5 years.

Certification: Protection From Blood Sucking Lawyers

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.

After winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne on Oct. 4, 2004, an exuberant Burt Rutan stood on the ramp at the Mojave Air & Space Port and promised to make SpaceShipTwo at least 100 times safer than any crewed spacecraft that had ever flown.

Speaking at a Space Frontier Foundation conference only days later, Rutan went even further, committing himself to having the spacecraft certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just like a commercial aircraft.

“You have to have certification, and it’s the cheapest thing you ever buy,” a confident Rutan said. “First of all, it costs you between nine and sixteen percent more because the FAA is there. Forget these guys who say certification makes it ten times as expensive. I know what it takes….

“Certification is not expensive because of the FAA. And I’ll tell you something , it’s the very best thing you can buy when you have an accident and somebody gets killed,” he added. “The plaintiff’s attorney’s job is to convince that non-technical jury that you did a sloppy job, that you didn’t do enough for his safety.

“The very best thing you can do is say that there are specific government certification requirements and I met every one of them, and you even get to bring the government in to certify to the jury that you passed all of the safety requirements,” Rutan added. “Without that you can’t survive as an industry: you can’t survive the first accident, and you can’t insure. So you got to have government certification that protects passengers.”

In essence, certification would provide a shield against litigation if and when SpaceShipTwo killed someone. Rutan appeared more concerned about losing in court than losing a passenger. Although that attitude might have offended some, Rutan’s many fans cheered. He might say things that really hurt, but hey that’s just Burt.

From Certification to Caveat Emptor

Sir Richard Branson (L) and Burt Rutan pose for a photo in front of the SpaceShip2 resting under the Mothership WhiteKnight2 inside a hangar in Mojave,Ca.
Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan pose for a photo in front of the SpaceShip2 resting under the WhiteKnightTwo inside a hangar in Mojave, Calif.

That ambitious goal didn’t last very long. When Congress passed an industry-backed commercial space bill in December 2004, certification was nowhere to be found. The FAA’s main responsibilities were limited issuing license and experimental permits to companies, and protecting the general public from getting bonked on the head by falling spaceship debris. [See Commercial Human Spaceflight Industry Lightly Regulated]

Fly at your own risk — caveat emptor, ticket buyer beware — became the bedrock principle upon which this new industry would operate. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) couldn’t promulgate safety regulations to protect passengers and pilots until after there was a close call or serious accident. (At which point, the occupants might be dead and well beyond caring.)

Supporters pointed to the regulation-free era of early aviation as a model. Only through trial and error — and yes, crashes and deaths — did the aviation industry gain the experience to make flying as safe as it is today.  Any effort by government to impose safety standards on commercial space would merely slow down the process with excessive bureaucracy, discourage genuine innovation, and increase costs to excessive levels.

The story of early aviation isn’t nearly as simple as it was portrayed — the private aviation industry actually sought government regulations for years because its safety record was so poor. The government was way ahead of the private sector on aviation safety for much of the decade. [See A Closer Look at Early Aviation Safety & Regulation]

But, Congress bought the argument anyway. The hands-off approach — also known as informed consent — was the perfect expression of the libertarian, get government out of the way and let us do our thing culture of Mojave.

At the time the law was passed, NASA had been flying people into space for more than 40 years. The space agency had seen the triumph of the Apollo moon landings and, earlier in 2004, the tragedy of the Columbia shuttle accident in which seven astronauts had been killed. Surely, there were safety practices from NASA flights that should be mandated by the government to make commercial spaceflight safer?

Most folks in Mojave didn’t think so. Rutan was especially dismissive of the space agency, which he mispronounced as “nay-say”. Standing on the ramp immediately after winning the Ansari X Prize, he boasted that NASA and its large aerospace prime contractors were shaking in their boots over what he had just accomplished with SpaceShipOne. Within a few years, he would drive them to extinction.

(In 2007, one of those very dinosaurs — defense giant Northrop Grumman — would acquire the 60 percent of Scaled Composites the company didn’t already own. Less than a year later, Northrop removed Rutan as Scaled president and replaced him with Doug Shane.  Rutan stayed on as chief technology officer and chairman emeritus, but his time running the place day to day was over.)

No Limit Safety Hold ‘Em…

Will Whitehorn and Richard Branson. (Credit: Jeff Foust)
Will Whitehorn and Richard Branson. (Credit: Jeff Foust)

Once Congress eliminated his biggest fear — that lawyers would put Scaled Composites or Virgin Galactic out of business — Rutan set his sights on a much lower safety standard for SpaceShipTwo.

“This is designed to be at least as safe as the early airliners in the 1920s,” he said. “Don’t believe anyone that tells you that the safety will be the same as a modern airliner, which has been around for 70 years.”

This wasn’t exactly a very high standard. The accident and death rates of that era were pretty bad, much higher than would ever be tolerated today. Any space tourism business that operated with that level of safety would likely end up with dead pilots, dead passengers and an insufficient customer base to stay in business. [See Early Aviation & the Safety of Space Tourism]

Eager to sell tickets, Virgin Galactic did its best to ignore Rutan’s new formulation. Instead, Virgin added a zero to his original optimistic boast and claimed SpaceShipTwo would be 1,000 times safer than any conventional rocket launched vertically from a stationary launch pad.

Then-Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn never explained where he pulled that number out from. How he could accurately estimate the safety of a new vehicle that had never flown based on a handful of flights of a much smaller spacecraft of a different design was another question left unanswered.

But, Whitehorn was a salesman, not an engineer, and he was very good at his job. His claim went unchallenged. It sounded good; whether it was true seemed less important.

I recently ask a friend who is an expert on the reliability of launch vehicles about what safety improvement Virgin Galactic might gain from air launch. His guessed 10 percent at most. The company was off by a factor of 100.

A Fatal Miscalculation

Of course, SpaceShipTwo had other risks that were completely separate from how it would be launched. On the scorching hot day of July 26, 2007, one of those risks bit hard at Scaled Composites’ test site in Mojave.

Engineers were conducting a test on a new valve for SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid motor by flowing nitrous oxide through it. It was known as a cold flow because there was no rubber fuel present to interact with the oxidizer. The test was deemed to be non-hazardous.

Three seconds into the 15-second test, the nitrous oxide tank exploded. Scaled Composites had not cleared the area around the test stand; 11 people were standing nearby. Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Glenn May died of shrapnel wounds, three others were hospitalized.

A memorial plaque to three Scaled Composites engineers killed in 2007 is displayed in Mojave's Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
A memorial plaque to three Scaled Composites engineers killed in 2007 is displayed in Mojave’s Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The accident’s root cause was Rutan’s failure to understand the dangerous nature of the oxidizer he was using for the engine. Following the accident, he said he had no idea that nitrous oxide could explode on its own. It was an odd defense; nitrous oxide is a mono-propellant, which means it can do exactly that under certain conditions.

For SpaceShipOne, Rutan had worked with an outside company named SpaceDev to develop the engine. After winning the prize, Rutan had brought engine development in house for SpaceShipTwo, and even denigrated SpaceDev’s contribution to the original hybrid motor. After claiming credit for the success, he denied responsibility for the failure. The accident was simply unforeseeable. [See Prizes, Technology and Safety]

Virgin Galactic issued a brief press release that didn’t even mention the dead workers’ names. Otherwise, the company said little. Branson did not rush to Mojave to take charge of the situation as he would later do when SpaceShipTwo crashed.

Both Scaled and Virgin described the tragedy as an “industrial accident”, which was technically true. Immediately after the explosion, Ansari X Prize creator Peter Diamandis claimed rather bizarrely that it would not impact the safety of SpaceShipTwo even though no one knew the cause or what it meant for the program.

The deaths of the three men certainly had no impact on Virgin Galactic’s safety claims, which held that the hybrid engine was infinitely superior to liquid- and solid-fuel motors.

“The oxidizer is Nitrous Oxide and the fuel a rubber compound; both benign, stable as well as containing none of the toxins found in solid rocket motors,” the company said on its website.

Even as the company stressed that safety was its North Star, it was cutting back the number of powered flight tests. Virgin Galactic had told investors it planned 30 powered tests; by late 2014, it had flown only three short ones with burns lasting a maximum of 20 seconds. Only a handful of additional powered flights — using a new type of engine that burned nylon — were planned before the spaceship would be declared operational.

The first commercial flight was planned for early 2015 with the company’s founder, Richard Branson, and his only son, Sam, on board. It was a prospect that frightened some people in Mojave. They worried Virgin Galactic was pushing the flight test program too far and too fast because of schedule and financial pressures.

Crash — Scrub — Spin — Repeat

SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Then came the morning of Oct. 31, 2014.

At 10:07 a.m. PDT, SpaceShipTwo broke apart in the sky near Koehn Lake about 20 miles north of Mojave. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died; pilot Pete Siebold survived a fall from around 50,000 without a pressure suit.

Alsbury unlocked the spacecraft’s feather system too early during ascent, causing it to deploy prematurely. The spacecraft broke up as it reconfigured itself in powered flight. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Scaled Composites had failed to consider that human error could bring down the ship and to safeguard against it.

Three days after the crash, Branson abruptly reversed himself on SpaceShipTwo’s safety and embraced Rutan’s position.

[CNN aviation analyst Miles] O’Brien said Virgin Galactic “had consistently underestimated the risks involved.”

Branson denied this, saying that 400 “of the best engineers in the world” were working on the project and that the risks were similar to those taken by people flying across the Atlantic in the 1920s and ’30s.

As Branson pivoted, Virgin Galactic had already taken steps to hide the evidence of how it had underestimated the risks. Immediately after the accident, the company took down its elaborate website, which included safety claims that went beyond what Whitehorn had said years earlier.

When the new website debuted several weeks later, all the claims were gone. It was as if they had never even existed.

The crash exposed what happens when marketing — which can be shaped into any irresistible form imaginable, and where words mislead and images distort  —  collides with the immutable laws of physics. Physics is going to win every time.

Safety, Redux

VSS Unity roll out on Feb. 19, 2016. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
VSS Unity roll out on Feb. 19, 2016. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

When Virgin Galactic rolled out the second SpaceShipTwo on Feb. 19, officials were careful to stress the safety improvements they had made since the accident. A pin has been installed to prevent the feather from deploying prematurely. Larger horizontal stabilizers were added to the twin tail booms, new landing gear installed, and a host of other unspecified changes were made to improve safety and performance. The rubber hybrid motor would have much better performance than the one used previously.

In an update published at the time of the rollout, the company stressed the extensive testing that is being done on the new spaceship and its components. Another update also focused on testing.

A conservative approach to flight test would be to treat the second SpaceShipTwo as a brand new vehicle. They would put it through another full flight test program, progressing steadily from captive carry to glide and finally powered flights. Step by step, skip nothing.

However, Virgin Galactic officials don’t seem to be approaching it that way. Officials talked about reducing the number of glide flights if the new vehicle seemed to be performing the same as the old one.

It’s unclear whether Virgin Galactic is committed to doing the dozens of powered flights it originally promised investors. Such a flight test program would allow pilots and engineers to fully test out the spacecraft, find all the flaws, and make improvements required to make the vehicle safer.

However, such a flight test program would require a lot of time and money. And Virgin’s customers — some of whom have waited a decade to fly — might be tempted to take their business elsewhere. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, for example, could begin flying tourists to space aboard New Shepard in 2018.

The Dangers of Expedience

F-100 fighters flying in formation. (Credit: USAF)
F-100 fighters flying in formation. (Credit: USAF)

In his autobiography, test pilot Chuck Yeager wrote that flight test is a long, drawn out process that cannot be skimped on. Sometimes problems weren’t discovered until late in the flight test program, he wrote. In other cases, problems are downplayed in the rush to get an aircraft into production.

So it was with the F-100 fighter.  After his first flight in the aircraft, Yeager told North America’s chief test pilot, George “Wheaties” Welsh, that something was very wrong with the new plane.

“Hey,” I said, “you can’t fly in formation with this thing. It has the damned sorriest flight control system I’ve ever seen.” Wheaties just shook his head. He was an old fighter jock who had shot down Japanese Zeros during the Pearl Harbor attack. “Goddamn it, Chuck, you’re just being hypercritical,” he insisted. “No, I’m not,” I said. “That airplane just isn’t stable.” Pete Everest told him the same thing.

Despite Yeager’s efforts, the aircraft was put into production and about 200 aircraft were delivered to the U.S. Air Force. Then one day in 1954 Wheaties put an F-100 into a dive going Mach 1.4 and the plane disintegrated. He was killed; the flight date recorders revealed the aircraft was  unstable.

A F-100 Super Sabre crashes at Edwards Air Force Base in 1956.
A F-100 Super Sabre crashes at Edwards Air Force Base in 1956.

“Was Welsh just being a salesman when he accused us of nit-picking? If so, he was a fool to attempt a structural demonstration dive,” Yeager wrote.

The Air Force grounded the entire F-100 fleet. The changes required to fix the aircraft’s flaw nearly bankrupted North American Aviation.

It’s a good lesson. If you don’t find and correct the problems during flight tests, they will come back and bite you later. For Virgin Galactic, later is when they have a half dozen millionaires in the cabin. The company can’t afford that.

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