Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was interviewed for the Jan. 30 edition of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast. Beginning at 25:44, there’s a brief discussion of the October 2014 crash that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed co-pilot Mike Alsbury.
Branson recalls that for the first 12 hours after the accident he wasn’t sure if the SpaceShipTwo program would continue. “But, once we realized it was a pilot error and not a technical error, I was able to tell all the engineers it was nothing to do with them. And that the basic craft was sound.”
Alas, most of this explanation is wrong.
Yes, Alsbury did make a mistake by unlocking the spacecraft’s feather system early, causing the vehicle’s twin tail booms to deploy during powered ascent. Aerodynamic forces then ripped the ship apart.
However, the accident was in large part about poor engineering and safety standards. It was not a sound spacecraft that Alsbury and pilot Mike Siebold climbed into that awful Halloween morning.
The NTSB investigation faulted SpaceShipOne’s builder, Scaled Composites, for both its design of the feather system and the training of the pilots. Operating on the erroneously assumption that a pilot would never make a mistake, Scaled did not design any safeguards into the system. The vehicle that Alsbury and Peter Siebold climbed into that day had a flaw in its safety system.
Scaled’s hazard analysis relating to human error was insufficient. Rather than requiring the company to correct the shortcomings, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) gave the company a waiver from the requirement. That decision was made over the objections of some of FAA AST’s own safety experts, who complained the approval process was subject to political pressure.
With the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, FAA AST was able to recruit experienced safety experts from NASA to evaluate the first-generation space tourism vehicles. These experts had trained astronauts, understood that they made mistakes all the time, and knew how to design systems that prevented a single error from bringing down a complex spaceship. The FAA, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic ignored their expertise.
Virgin Galactic took over the building of SpaceShipTwo vehicles from Scaled Composites after the accident. Branson’s engineers had to redesign the vehicle with safeguards to prevent another premature unlocking of the feather.
The changes to the feather are not trivial. So, it’s erroneous to claim SpaceShipTwo was essentially sound. The changes also bring their own risks. Engineers have to ensure the safety system they put in place to prevent a premature unlocking doesn’t malfunction when the pilots need the feature to deploy later in the flight.
Pilot error is an easy explanation. It’s also a lazy one that does not do justice to what actually happened that day. Mike Alsbury was just one part in a flawed system. He deserves better than having the entire accident laid on his shoulders.
Pilot Error is Never Root Cause, Wayne Hale