What Scaled, Virgin & Peter Diamandis Said After Last Fatal SpaceShipTwo Program Accident

Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The crash of SpaceShipTwo and the tragic loss of Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury were stark reminders that despite all the promises about the safety of new space tourism vehicles, space travel is a dangerous business where death can come in seconds.

If outsiders were stunned by the tragedy, it had a sickeningly familiar feel to long-time Mojave denizens. Mike Alsbury was not the first Scaled employee to die developing SpaceShipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline. He was the fourth. Three engineers preceded him seven years earlier in a horrific accident at the Mojave spaceport.

The  2007 tragedy was quite different from the one that occurred over Jawbone Canyon on Halloween. The response to it was both different and eerily familiar.

Continue reading ‘What Scaled, Virgin & Peter Diamandis Said After Last Fatal SpaceShipTwo Program Accident’

Go Slow Approach Urged in Wake of SpaceShipTwo Accident

Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Space News has an editorial on the SpaceShipTwo accident that I think is spot on:

Clearly the AST needs to wait until the NTSB presents the results of its investigation before drafting any such safety rules.

In the same vein, it was surprising to hear that Virgin Galactic intends to continue with construction of a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle with an eye toward resuming test flights in six months. Although the NTSB has raised the possibility that human error played a role in the mishap, it has not ruled out a design or mechanical issue with SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic is understandably eager to minimize additional delays to the introduction of commercial service and to demonstrate its resolve, but pressing ahead with construction — and perhaps even flight tests — while the investigation is still underway could prove problematic. One could argue that if Virgin Galactic wants to bet on SpaceShipTwo’s exoneration that’s its own business. But in doing so the company risks fueling doubts about the commercial spaceflight industry’s commitment to safety, which could invite the types of regulations it has sought to avoid, or at least defer.

That said, the AST should tread lightly in recognition of the industry’s novelty and fragility. While it can never compromise when it comes to protecting uninvolved third parties, the office also must recognize that those who are willing to pay for the thrill of going to the edge of space are risk takers by both nature and choice — this is not commercial aviation.

It’s not clear to me that Virgin Galactic is in a financial position to slow down. They’re spending an enormous amount on this program, and they don’t really have any solid revenues yet.

Read the full editorial.

NTSB Completes On-Scene Portion of SpaceShipTwo Crash Investigation

Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The National Transportation Safety Board issued an investigative update today into the crash of SpaceShip Two on Oct. 31, 2014, in Mojave, Calif.

  • The on-scene portion of the investigation into the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, a test flight conducted by Scaled Composites, has concluded and all NTSB investigators have returned to Washington, DC.
  • The SpaceShipTwo wreckage has been recovered and is being stored in a secure location for follow-on examination.
  • The NTSB operations and human performance investigators interviewed the surviving pilot on Friday. According to the pilot, he was unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early by the copilot. His description of the vehicle motion was consistent with other data sources in the investigation. He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically.
  • Recorded information from telemetry, non-volatile memory, and videos are being processed and validated to assist the investigative groups.
  • An investigative group to further evaluate the vehicle and ground based videos will convene next week at the NTSB Recorders Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
  • The systems group continues to review available data for the vehicle’s systems (flight controls, displays, environmental control, etc.). The group is also reviewing design data for the feather system components and the systems safety documentation.
  • The vehicle performance group continues to examine the aerodynamic and inertial forces that acted on the vehicle during the launch.

The investigation is ongoing. Any future updates will be issued as events warrant. Follow the investigation on Twitter at @ntsb, on our website at ntsb.gov, or sign up to receive NTSB news releases.

SpaceShipTwo: Were Proper Communications Protocols Followed on Feather Unlock?


OK, everybody.

The NTSB just completed its final media briefing in Mojave on the SpaceShipTwo investigation. And this story got stranger.

During the Q&A, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart appeared to back off his claim yesterday that it was co-pilot Mike Alsbury, who died in the crash, unlocked the feather mechanism at Mach 1.0 instead of Mach 1.4. The unlocking of the mechanism in the heavier air during powered acceleration caused the twin tail booms to deploy in conditions they were not designed to perform in. The tail booms ripped off the ship in two seconds, causing SpaceShipTwo to disintegrate.

Hart indicated that he was mistaken in his statement on Sunday night, and that officials were not sure who the pilot in the right-hand seat was who unlocked the feather mechanism. He ended the briefing without clarifying how such a mistake could have been made. Pilots are always in the left-hand seats while co-pilots sit in the right-hand one.

Continue reading ‘SpaceShipTwo: Were Proper Communications Protocols Followed on Feather Unlock?’

Orbital Sciences Does Launch Pad Assessment, Begins Accident Investigation

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

Orbital Sciences Antares Update – October 29

Early this morning, range officials performed an aerial survey of the launch facilities and surrounding areas at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility where yesterday’s failure of the Antares rocket occurred after it lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A.  Shortly after, a team of representatives from NASA, MARS and Orbital entered the launch site to perform a preliminary assessment of the launch complex and related facilities.  The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary.  However, until the facility is inspected in greater detail in the coming days, the full extent of necessary repairs or how long they will take to accomplish will not be known.

NASA has posted aerial views of the launch pad taken earlier today here.

Also today, Orbital made progress forming a permanent Accident Investigation Board (AIB) comprised of company officials, along with representatives from NASA and the NTSB, with the FAA providing overall oversight of the process.  Initially, Mr. Rich Straka, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group, served as the interim chairman to begin the investigation process immediately after the launch mishap.  Today, Orbital appointed Mr. Dave Steffy, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer of the company’s Advanced Programs Group, a highly experienced engineer well-versed in launch vehicle engineering and operations, to serve as the permanent chairman of the AIB.

No follow-on press conferences are planned at this time. Further updates on the situation and the progress of the ongoing investigation will be provided as they are available.

Space Access 12: FAA AST Chief Engineer Mike Kelly


Michael Kelly
Chief Engineer, Office of Commercial Spaceflight
Federal Aviation Administration
“Commercial Human Spaceflight: The Coming Safety Challenge

Changes at FAA

  • AST split in several offices, including chief engineer’s offic
  • Former astronaut Pamela Ann Melroy has been added as senior adviser for human spaceflight — flew on STS-92, 112 and 120 — previously serve as Deputy Program Manager for Space Exploration Initiatives at Lockheed Martin after leaving the astronaut corps
  • reorganizing field offices
  • adding a second position at Mojave, new positions at Wallops and JSC
  • Planned tech center with 50 people at KSC will not happen
  • Moritorium on regulations has been expanded to Oct. 1, 2015 — although FAA can propose rules if there is an accident

Continue reading ‘Space Access 12: FAA AST Chief Engineer Mike Kelly’

NTSB Asks Congress for Authority to Investigate Commercial Space Accidents


WSJ: NTSB Seeks Authority To Probe Commercial Space Accidents
Wall Street Journal

The National Transportation Safety Board, which currently probes plane, train, ship and highway crashes, wants to expand its purview to cover the final frontier: investigating commercial spacecraft mishaps and accidents.

Continue reading ‘NTSB Asks Congress for Authority to Investigate Commercial Space Accidents’