Part 2 of 3
Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Oct. 10, 2017
In his new book, Richard Branson recounts that on the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, he was on his private Caribbean island in a state of “schoolboy excitement.” The reason? Three time zones away in California’s Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were conducting the longest and most ambitious flight test of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.
After being dropped from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, the space plane’s pilots would fire the vehicle’s hybrid engine for 38 seconds to reach an altitude of 135,000 to 138,000 feet. That was well below the 328,084-foot (100 km) boundary of space, but it would be nearly twice the altitude achieved on any previous test. A successful flight would pave the way for longer engine burns and bring Branson’s long cherished dream of flying into space much closer to reality after a decade of frustrations and delays.
While getting text updates from Mojave, Branson received a call from his son, Sam, who was undergoing centrifuge training at the NASTAR Center outside of Philadelphia for the inaugural commercial flight of SpaceShipTwo that he would take with his father in early 2015.
“Sam, at this moment WhiteKnightTwo is soaring sixty thousand feet in the air above Mojave, waiting to release SpaceShipTwo,” Branson told him proudly. “If this test goes well, it could be us in that spaceship soon.”
As if right on queue, a text message arrived from Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides with the shocking news that SpaceShipTwo had just crashed. The status of the two Scaled Composites pilots was unknown.
When three Scaled engineers had died seven years earlier in an explosion while testing part of SpaceShipTwo’s engine, it had taken Branson weeks to visit Mojave. This time, the stunned billionaire threw his passport and other necessities into a bag and jumped into a speed boat. By early evening Pacific time, Branson had arrived in his private jet at the Mojave Air and Space Port to take charge of the crisis.
A Hellish Halloween Morning
At about the same time Branson was preparing to leave Necker Island, I was standing on a desert road 3,500 miles away in complete shock. Debris from SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit lay scattered across Cantil Road and out into the scrub brush near Koehn Lake. A jagged piece of the fuselage bearing the ship’s name, Enterprise, sat on the pavement. In a small crater nearby lay the body of Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury, still strapped into its seat.
If Branson had been looking forward to this flight test with anticipation, I had been dreading it for much of the year. The crash was exactly what I had feared would happen. My sense of foreboding had grown as the year had worn on; it had become acute in mid-October when it became clear that powered tests of SpaceShipTwo were to soon resume for the first time since early January. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t really fight it. I just wanted to flee.
“I’m going to be out at Koehn Lake, they’re going to drop this thing over my head, light the engine and it will explode,” I told two friends visiting from LA who inquired about my unsettled state about 10 days before the accident. “Then there’s going to be parts of that ship coming down all around me.”
That’s not exactly what happened, but the end result was much the same: a wrecked ship, a dead pilot and a program thrown into an existential crisis. As I photographed the crash scene, I was shocked but not the least bit surprised. I had seen it coming. And I wasn’t the only one in Mojave to do so.
So, what had me and others in Mojave so worried? What dangers had Branson seemingly been so blissfully unaware of on that terrible morning? The fears can be summed up in three issues the billionaire largely ignores in his autobiography: money, time and the engine.
They Don’t Have an Engine
SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rubber-nitrous oxide engine had been the program’s biggest challenge. It wasn’t just that a tank of the volatile nitrous oxide had exploded without warning on the test stand in 2007, killing three engineers and putting three others in the hospital. It was that they just couldn’t get the engine to work.
The hybrid motor had been sufficient for the much smaller and lighter SpaceShipOne when it won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. However, the scaled-up version produced severe oscillations and vibrations if it was fired for 30 seconds or longer in flight. The firing times for the first three powered tests in 2013 and early 2014 were limited to no more than 20 seconds, about a third of what was required for a full engine burn.
At the end of 2013, engineers had found a solution to the problem that required the installation of wing tanks and other modifications to SpaceShipTwo. After the third powered flight and a glide flight in January 2014, the ship was taken into the hangar for months of extensive modifications.
Then came another major change. At the end of May 2014, Virgin Galactic announced it was moving from rubber to nylon fuel. Officially, this was due to better performance, with Virgin Galactic officials described it as a simple change of fuel grains. The ongoing modifications to the ship — which were still required for the nylon engine — were never mentioned.
Sources in Mojave revealed the change was made because the nylon fuel cost less. Scaled Composites would supply the nylon engine at a lower cost than Sierra Nevada Corporation provided the rubber motor. Virgin Galactic was under pressure during this time to cut costs because money was tight, the sources said.
The company was also under schedule pressure from the Abu Dhabi government, which had invested $380 million in Virgin Galactic through the state-owned aabar Investments sovereign wealth fund. The investors wanted a flight to the vehicle’s maximum altitude by the end of the year to continue supporting the program financially, sources said. That deadline was later extended a quarter to March 2015.
Nobody was quite sure what maximum altitude SpaceShipTwo would reach. Unlike SpaceShipOne, the overweight and under powered spacecraft could not reach the Karman line at 100 km (62 miles). Virgin Galactic was instead aiming to exceed 50 miles (80.4 km), which was the altitude the U.S. Air Force set for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s.
Major modifications to a spacecraft — especially a change in propulsion — are rare in the middle of a test program. The changes would need to be carefully evaluated in flight to ensure their safety. That they might not be was one of the main reasons so many people were worried.
A Compressed Test Schedule
In his autobiography, legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager has described flight test as a lengthy, incremental and meticulous process of finding all the flaws in a prototype – everything that can kill a pilot – without getting yourself killed in the process. Only then do you put the vehicle into production.
Virgin Galactic officials are fond of saying they will fly when they are ready, when it is safe. That’s a vague standard that they have never publicly defined. And it seems to have changed over time.
In a prospectus sent to investors, Virgin Galactic said there would be 30 powered flight tests of SpaceShipTwo before commercial operations began. By the morning of Oct. 31, SpaceShipTwo had completed only three powered flights and 30 glide flights. None of the powered flights had exceeded 71,000 feet in altitude, and that was after being dropped from around 50,000 feet.
Facing a tight budget and pressure from investors, Virgin Galactic planned only three more powered flights for a total of six. Those half dozen powered flights would have been conducted with two different types of engines.
After the test on Oct. 31, a second flight would follow about three weeks later during which the engine would be burned for 50 seconds. A third test in December would take the ship to its maximum altitude. At that point, the flight test program would be deemed complete, and Scaled Composites would hand SpaceShipTwo over to Virgin Galactic.
Branson’s company would take SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo down to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic was the anchor tenant. Branson and his son, Sam, would be on the first commercial flight in the first quarter of 2015.
Six powered flights with only one to maximum altitude wouldn’t have been a very extensive test program. Six would have been exactly the same number flown by SpaceShipOne, an experimental vehicle that never carried any passengers and was retired immediately after it second prize-winning flight. However, three of SpaceShipOne’s flights had actually reached space, more than its successor would during its test program.
With such a compressed schedule there was a real risk of pushing the vehicle – or its flight crew – too far, too fast. More likely, the flight test program would miss something important that would result in a bad day once commercial operations began in 2015. Perhaps even with the owner and his son on board.
Further, the SpaceShipTwo that would begin passenger flights with the Bransons on board was a “proof of concept” prototype that Scaled Composites had not intended for commercial service. The goal had been to build a production vehicle incorporating modifications based on lessons learned during the flight test program.
It was difficult to understand how the plan met anybody’s definition of flying when it was safe. If Branson was really looking forward to the Halloween test flight with “schoolboy excitement” and eager to fly as soon as possible, he really didn’t grasp what was going on in Mojave.
There was one other curious matter whose importance was not well understood at the time. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST), which was overseeing the test program, had issued Scaled Composites a waiver for SpaceShipTwo exempting the company from meeting safety requirements concerning pilot error and software error.
Why the office would grant the waiver was a mystery that the document’s text did nothing to clear up. SpaceShipTwo was largely hand flown by the two pilots, who faced a very high workload during the powered ascent portion of the flight. There were no sophisticated computers aboard and no auto pilot to assist them. So why issue a safety waiver for pilot error? The answer would have to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its accident report nine months after the crash.
On Thursday, Oct. 30, there were clear signs the long-planned powered flight would occur the following day. WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo with an engine installed sat mated outside Virgin Galactic’s FAITH hanger, a familiar notice to airmen (NOTAM) indicating the control tower would open early on Friday and Saturday was posted on the FAA’s website, and a source confirmed what all the evidence was telling me.
To distract myself, I stayed at an office on the airport intently focused on finishing a long analytical piece, Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps, I’d been writing on and off for much of the past month. I headed home as a brilliant sunset over the Tehachapi Mountains lit up a cloud-filled skies west of the spaceport.
Before turning in just before midnight, I had a discussion about the upcoming flight with a friend over email. We debated how long would it take them to crash the ship. Five flights, she guessed. I thought it could happen in the morning. It was the last thing either of us wanted to be right about.
Somehow I felt better. We had defined the parameters of my fears. And it was nice to have someone to confide in. I couldn’t repeat most of what I knew to many people in Mojave; the town was just too small for that. And, I thought grimly, if a crash is coming, maybe it will happen in New Mexico where I wouldn’t see it.
I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and drifted off for some of the soundest sleep I’d had in weeks. I awoke six hours later to the predawn chill of a fall morning. I would be awake for next 40 hours.
Tomorrow: The blame game begins.
Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake