Former NASA Astronaut No Fan of Richard Branson’s “Dangerous” & “Dead-end” SpaceShipTwo Vehicle

SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Crredit: NTSB)

Four-time space shuttle astronaut Andy Thomas is no fan of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports.

“It’s really just a high altitude aeroplane flight and a dangerous one at that.”

He said the technology for the spacecraft had little room to grow.

“I think, as a technology to get humans out into space, it’s a go-nowhere, dead-end technology,” he said.

“You can’t grow it, you can’t make it big enough.”

ABC reports that while South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has welcomed the idea of Virgin Galactic operating space tourism flights from the state, Thomas said it would not be worth the tax subsidies Branson would likely demand.

New Mexico has spent more than $225 million on Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. Commercial flights are likely to begin from the facility outside of Truth or Consequences in 2019.

The Australian-born astronaut was much more positive about one of Branson’s other space companies, Virgin Orbit, which is preparing to launch small satellites using a booster air launched from a Boeing 747 next year.

“That’s why, despite my criticisms of what he’s trying to do in human space flight, I think in terms of the satellite technology and the capabilities of launching vehicles, it’s something we should support.”

While Thomas would not be comfortable flying on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, former NASA astronaut C.J. Sturckow has no qualms. He was at the controls last week when SpaceShipTwo flew above 50 miles in a flight test from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

  • Robert G. Oler

    danger is relative. as is safety…but I dont know that I agree with him all that much

    the vehicle is clearly not unsafe to fly …its flown several times and this last one looks all the world to me pretty smooth. there are two major questions 1) is the design of the sub systems and the integration of them such that when operated correctly they have a reasonable margin of safety for off nominal performance and operation, then 2) can the system be operated safely by the humans over a reasonable range of skill.

    the shuttle which Andy flew in, in my view could not pass that test. Mir and Soyuz just barely

    the accident was “valuable” to the team (as most test flight accidents are) because I am sure it caused them to relook at both their safety operation (well that I know it did they hired a pretty good safety person) and their ops as well as their technology

    as for it being a dead end design. thats not relevant to danger. and safety

  • Jeff2Space

    The big “criticality one” systems on SS2 are the hybrid motor and the feathering mechanism. The former has already killed people on the ground and the latter has already killed people in the air.

    During powered flight, the feathering system must stay locked, or you lose the aircraft. During reentry, the feathering system must be deployed, or you lose the aircraft. After reentry, the feathering system must be be locked in the non-deployed position in order for the aircraft to glide, or you lose the aircraft. This system, in my mind, is the most unique “criticality one” system on SS2. How safe is it? Hard to tell since it’s so unique.

    The hybrid motor was a mistake from the beginning and continues to be a mistake to this day. But from a safety perspective, it seems like they’ve worked all the bugs out of the system. In the end, that cost them some performance (causing people to grumble that it isn’t going to go to the same altitude as SS1). Hopefully it remains safe, but I personally wouldn’t have picked nitrous as my oxidizer. I’d have bit the bullet and gone with a liquid methane/LOX engine. With as much time and money spent on the hybrid, they could have had a safer, cheaper to operate, liquid fueled rocket engine by now.

  • SamuelRoman13

    I hope that Spaceplane Global builds the XP to compete. Only $100,000. Got a little ways to go with my savings. I sent an e-mail suggesting using the TGV RT-30 rocket engine. There is only one, but that is all they need. They are working with Polaris? to build an engine. Maybe they could get parts donated or give credit for a ride or investment return. They are ready to start. We can sign up. No down payment, free to just to see how much interest there is. I might do it and put a e-mail block on them if they send me too many e-mail.

  • SamuelRoman13

    TGV RT-30. To replace RL-10. 196lbs. 100 restarts. Nice for XP rocketplane.

  • Robert G. Oler

    It all depends on perspective 🙂

    to your two points. the flaw so far in the feathering systems has not been the system itself (as best I can tell it has never failed aerodynamically) but how it is “operated”. I have no contact with the organization much less am into their systems…but just on “time of flight” alone it seems to me that the system is “OK” IF they managed to “put” it in the correct mode at the correct time (analogous to say the landing gear on a plane) . Without a doubt they did not have enough “interlock” mechanisms to prevent “human effort”. but a guess would be that they have fixed that.

    the motor? I cannot speak to the economics of it…but again they have had issues with that and I suspect a lot of brain power went into solving it…the question “now” I suspect is can the safety envelope sustain the human “factor” in production?

    the perspective point is that 1) this is what good old fashion test flying is about. and 2) it is how companies mature.

    the First B17 and B29 were total losses with loss of life. Cessna lost a test pilot the other day. you dont hear of these because they are not space…but the first shuttle flight came darn close

    SpaceX so far is uncrewed but they have had some serious “test flying” mishaps…

    companies cannot “buy” this experience except in this way. I suspect that if you went back to before the VG accident…they were pretty confident in the procedure to shift the wings. Boeing lost the B17 prototype because they were pretty confident in the same things

    I am not telling you that there are not “more out there” but…we will see

    For what it is worth the more I look into the NASA/SpaceX/Boeing thing ie the safety deal…the more I kind of side with NASA on this. They are quite worried that more SpaceX than Boeing but really both have not got a grip on the safety issues of human flight. and this is the blind leading the blind because NASA HSF doesnt have a grip on it either.

    but again this is what test flying is for

  • ThomasLMatula

    You mean the Emperor has no clothes? How shocking!

  • ThomasLMatula

    It is also ironic as Burt Rutan saw it as a safety feature after the loss of the X-15 that Scott Adams flew. But advances in flight control computers would have eliminated that risk in a modern version of the X-15. By contrast the dislike Burt Rutan had for exactly those types of flight computer systems caused the fatal accident of SpaceshipTwo.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I think you are referring to the Model 299. It crashed because it was the first aircraft large enough to need locks on the flight control surfaces and the pilots forgot to unlock them before taking off.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Most of SS2’s issues arise from design decisions that Burt Rutan make.

    IMO the biggest issue is the reliance on actual human pilots for flight operations. There is almost no automation in the SS2 design. Some spacecraft designers just get too enamored of the sticks and pedals way of flying.

    Going directly to a bigger hybrid engine without some test firings first. Preferably some high altitude tests.

    Choosing a hybrid main engine also means that SS2 is basically rebuild after every hybrid motor ignition, Since the hybrid motor is a structural part of the spacecraft.

    Yeah. Virgin Galactic is doomed. They ran out of time to get SS2 operational. The New Sheppard will take most of the suborbital tourists market share if not all. Sadly SS2 is just another aerospace white elephant project.

  • Robert G. Oler

    yeap I usually just say B17 prototype as most people dont have a clue what the M 299 is or was

    it was the start of checklist. a guy named LeMay argued for them

  • Robert G. Oler

    the comments on automation are absurd

  • Douglas Messier

    Mike Adams. You’re thinking of the cartoonist.

  • Robert G. Oler

    But advances in flight control computers would have eliminated that
    risk in a modern version of the X-15. By contrast the dislike Burt Rutan
    had for exactly those types of flight computer systems caused the fatal
    accident of SpaceshipTwo.

    I dont agree with either of those two statements.

    SS2 was a config error…flight control systems will not fix that unless they have control over the config…you can land a triple 7 with the gear up. its loud but you can do it

  • Alan Craddock

    I think it is a little unfair to say what he did when you consider he put himself four times into one of the deadliest flying machines in history , even NASA held its breath when the shuttle took off ,it’s seems he might have his nose out of joint because maybe he wasn’t invited to fly SS2 . Virgin Galatic has done extremely well considering it’s a private company ,the team is amazing and so is the idea , his premise of not being able to expand misses the business model , yes it’s dangerous so was flying the shuttle but you still go ,the experience of going to out of space would be worth the risk , and it’s not only for carrying passengers companies are also buying space on the spaceship for scientific experiments . If average people can get the experience of going into space then I’m all for it so should everyone else , good luck to them I just wish I could be the first to go with them . Mr Thomas should not feel so elitist hopefully in the future thanks to Branson and Virgin Galatic many more people will be able to say they are ASTRONAUTS .

  • Lee

    The people who go up in SS2 will no more be “ASTRONAUTS” than you or I would be Naval Aviators if we flew on a C-2 Greyhound out to a carrier, or airline pilots if we flew on a commercial aircraft to anywhere.

    These people will be passengers. Pure and simple. Not astronauts in any way.

  • duheagle

    The sum total of U.S. and Russian experience since 1961 suggests that no one has a complete lock on safety anent human spaceflight. So SpaceX, Boeing and NASA are stuck with doing the best each knows how. If that proves to be insufficient in any given case down the road, well, it won’t be the first time a surprise – and it is almost certainly going to be a surprise – has come out the weeds to bite. Hell, we still haven’t perfected civil aviation and we’ve had a lot longer to do that and racked up orders of magnitude more of an experience base.

    In the case of NASA there is the additional complicating factor that there is a genuine rift in the organzation anent SpaceX in a way there is not anent Boeing. Parts of NASA are in the pro-SpaceX camp (Ames, Plum Brook, JSC) and others are in the anti-SpaceX camp (MSFC). Both factions seem to have representation on safety-related bodies, but the “anties” appear to have pulled out a bit of a lead of late.

    In any case, NASA has no credible claim to being a neutral judge anent any particular decision about SpaceX alone or about SpaceX vs. Boeing.

    In my view, a number of “concerns” expressed by NASA safety wallahs have had much more to do with institutional anti-SpaceX factionalism than with actual safety. That is especially so anent intrusions NASA has made into the originally planned capabilities and operating modes of Dragon 2. The late-stage prohibitions on propulsive landing tests on cargo-only Dragon 2 missions and of deployable landing legs bulk very large here. To be blunt, there simply isn’t any credible case to be made that either of these decisions advanced Dragon2’s safety, but it is easy to make a case that D2 safety was actively injured by these dicta.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Let re-phased automation to ability of the spacecraft fly with minimum input from the crew to any degree. (i.e. maintaining the vehicle level in glide)

  • windbourne

    Actually, astronaut is anybody that hits 50 or 60 miles away from earth. It has nothing to do with piloting or any job.

  • Lee

    Nope, you’re wrong. What do you base your incorrect assertion on?

  • Paul Thomas

    who cares. All flying is dangerous especially for joy. what matters is accidents are learnt from, and passengers know the risks. Didn’t he go up in the shuttle? that killed 14. Or Soyuz that has come very close to killing more than the 4.

  • SamuelRoman13

    Like Sen. Nelson. I am trying to get him to run for VP and find a young engineer, like Jimmy Carter to run with him for President. He will never win Pres at his age. He can be pres of Senate and Space Council and a Democrat to represent Fl. Not much of an ego trip though. Democrats might win Fl. however.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I would argue that the Russians were and kind of still are….good with human lift and recovery to space…they are slipping some due to mostly lack of money, quality control and I suspect experience (but the latter one is only a guess) …but its hard to be real critical of their lift and recovery program…it is what it is and in my view has “design faults” (ie its to small etc) but in terms of operations…well they are to me at least impressive. The Russians are good when they have money (Aeroflot for instance) and while that is slipping away from their space program they are in my view reasonably safe.

    I am to tall…but I would ride a Soyuz in complete confidence

    NASA hsf was in my view pretty safe up to the end of the apollo hardware….the program (Apollo) was so complicated that for the safety mechanisms of the day it was just at the limit of what could be reasonably handled. that is why 13 happened. but at the end of the ASTP they knew really well how to operate the system

    The shuttle….well there is a good book or PhD paper to be written about why the shuttle and safety never really quite worked with each other.. the shuttle was quite dangerous throughout its career

    as for your claim about NASA and SpaceX thats BS fan boy stuff.

    the test program SpaceX had for propulsive landings was laughable…and their approach to crew safety is well getting better but its a computer game mentality that works OK when youa re just carrying cargo or testing returning first stages…but otherwise…well needs to mature, the test procedure NASA insisted on for propulsive landigns was a good solid one. SpaceX just didnt want to pay for it.

    Boeing is having some safety issues because the Starliner is the second vehicle that Boeing has tried to develop this century (the first was the dreamliner) and they are doing it outside of the normal FAA (and to some extent) military environment where the internal and external safety culture is very high..

    NASA is still feeling its way with contracting.

  • Robert G. Oler

    VG is flying with mostly 707 to 737/300 levels of automation. nothing wrong with that

  • Robert G. Oler

    the problem is that the term astronaut has no real other metric…other then a height indication. A lot of peoplewho flew on the shuttle were passengers.

  • windbourne

    And then you can go ask NASA and DoD.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Nothing will ever be a 100% safe. Even today planes still crash, autos wreck and boats sink. So you just do the best possible, learn from your mistakes and move forward.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sorry, yes Mike Adams. I corrected it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, but I imagine there would be alarms and you would need to override the computer to do so. It wouldn’t be something you could do by accident.

  • ThomasLMatula

    In the pre-WWI days anyone who flew in a plane was considered an “aviator”. But after the war the definition changed. Expect the same to be true for the term astronaut.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Tom…yes (that was the “loud” comment…but there are “lots of things” you can do in airplanes that dont have warnings on them and can hurt the plane badly….turn the wing anti ice on at FL350 or above and you can depress the plane.

    automation is a help for that but not a complete end all. the french automated the RTO (rejected take off ) on the 350…when they took their launch customer in the US Delta, flying the plane RTO’ed with all the head folks on board. already there have been three RTO’s in the 350 and none of them were warranted.

    my guess (and that is all it is) is that they plugged some more safety features in…but the big issue in the wing tilt was procedural. two pilots…you talk about things like that before they happen….

  • Lee

    Go read the WikiPedia page you cited. It states:

    “An astronaut or cosmonaut is a person trained by a human spaceflight program to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a spacecraft.
    Although generally reserved for professional space travelers, the terms
    are sometimes applied to anyone who travels into space, including
    scientists, politicians, journalists, and tourists”

    Clearly the intent of the term is to refer to professionals. Not passengers.

    I would maintain that only professionals should be given the title, to remain consistent with other forms of aviation. It makes absolutely no sense to call someone who is a passenger on a spaceflight an “astronaut” just as it makes no sense to call someone who’s flown in a commercial airplane an “airline pilot”.

  • windbourne

    Last time I checked, not a single person that has traveled to space, has gone without any SERIOUS form of training. Some my have a great deal more, but, EVERYBODY that has gone up, has had PROFESSIONAL TRAINING on it.
    Or are you going to claim that neither NASA nor RKA are professional agencies?

  • windbourne

    there will come a time that we really can send up regular civilians, but at this time, everybody that goes up, has a minimal amount of serious training. Heck, I find it interesting that both BO and VG will be doing training on all of their passengers.

  • Lee

    Not talking about people in the past. I’m talking about passengers on SS2 and NS. They will have almost no training even compared to Tito.

  • duheagle

    No real disagreement anent the Russians except that I think their deterioration is going to continue because there certainly isn’t any additional money for space in the offing. This will eventually result in their absence from future manned space activity. That point could well come within the next decade. There will still be three nations with autarkic manned space programs at that point, but India will have replaced the Russians.

    Your, at least purportedly, naive “belief” that government bodies have no ulterior agendas or any tendencies to play favorites is what is laughable here.

    What, specifically, did you find so “laughable” about SpaceX’s vertical landing test plans for D2? Given the number of clearly impossible things you already seem to expect the rest of us to believe before breakfast, I’m certainly not going to take your word for it.

    As for SpaceX “not wanting to pay” for NASA’s proposed alternative, that seems to have been the intent of the anti-SpaceX faction within NASA that put said “plan” together. Commercial Crew is done on a fixed-fee-per-milestone basis. If NASA suddenly bumps the cost of one of those milestones way up, one can certainly pardon SpaceX for not playing the game its opponents within NASA assumed it would.

    NASA certainly is still “feeling its way” with contracting of the COTS/CC type. CLPS will be another such learning opportunity. But there are significant numbers of people within NASA who want to shut all this down and keep doing things as they’ve always been done with NASA calling all the shots. There is, in essence, a slow-rolling civil war going on within NASA and it’s far from obvious at this point which faction will emerge victorious. Mr. Bridenstine, at least, seems rhetorically and programatically inclined toward the NewNASA types so I have hopes all will work out well in the end.

  • duheagle

    You are at least correct that French avionics software is clearly inferior to the U.S. variety. I’m thinking, particularly, of that CFIT incident on the inaugural flight of the A320.

  • duheagle

    SamuelRoman13, meet Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Something to keep the boys and girls busy instead of jumping through NASA hoops


  • publiusr

    Andy’s ride made it to orbit at least. Nice to see something besides SLS being trashed for a change