by Douglas Messier
Five years ago today, SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up over the Mojave Desert during a flight test. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died and pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured.
The crash ended Virgin Galactic’s effort to begin commercial crewed suborbital spaceflights in the first quarter of 2015. Those flights are not forecast to begin in June 2020 — five years later than planned.
The accident occurred when Alsbury prematurely unlocked the spaceship’s feather device during powered ascent. A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) faulted builder Scaled Composites for failing to anticipate that one of its pilots could make such a mistake.
The NTSB report criticized the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) for approving SpaceShipTwo flight tests despite an inadequate safety analysis by Scaled. FAA AST subsequently issued a safety waiver for pilot and safety errors rather than cause a delay in testing.
The report documents the frustrations of FAA AST’s own safety experts, who said political pressure led the office to accept allow flight tests to continue despite the inadequate safety analysis and to issue the safety waiver.
NTSB also criticized the local emergency response to the accident as being slow.
Below are links to Parabolic Arc’s coverage of the crash and the NTSB report.
A detailed account of the day and its aftermath based on the NTSB report.
- Part 1: SpaceShipTwo’s PF04: A High Risk Fight
- Part 2: SpaceShipTwo Pilots Faced Extremely High Work Loads
- Part 3: A Good Light, Then a Fatal Mistak
- Part 4: Pete Siebold’s Harrowing Descent
- Part 5: Shock, Tears & Spin: The Aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo Crash
- Part 3.1: SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight No. 4 Flight Transcript
- Part 3.2: The Breakup of SpaceShipTwo Frame by Frame From the Tail Boom
- Part 4.1: SpaceShipTwo Emergency Response Timeline
- Final Report (PDF)
- NTSB Findings, Probable Cause and Safety Recommendations
- Initial NTSB Synopsis on SpaceShipTwo Accident
- Scaled Composites Statement on NTSB Findings
- Executive Summary of Scaled Composites Submission to NTSB
- Virgin Galactic Statement on NTSB Report About SpaceShipTwo Crash
- Branson’s Video Statement on NTSB Findings
- FAA AST Responds to NTSB Recommendations in SpaceShipTwo Accident Report
- Experts: FAA Review Process for SpaceShipTwo Flawed, Subject to Political Pressure