Virgin Galactic’s Modifications to SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo fuselage. (Credit: NTSB)

SpaceShipTwo fuselage. (Credit: NTSB)

On July 11, Virgin Galactic submitted information to the National Transportation Safety Board about how it planned to address issues raised by the crash of SpaceShipTwo last October. The recommendations and their status are reproduced below.

VG’s Post-Accident Recommendations

1) Modify the SpaceShipTwo feather lock system with an automatic mechanical inhibit to prevent unlocking or locking the feather locks during safety-critical phases of flight.

Status: Completed by VG

2) Add to the SpaceShipTwo Normal Procedures checklist and Pilot’s Operating Handbook an explicit warning about the consequences of prematurely unlocking the feather lock.

Status: Completed by VG

3) Implement a comprehensive Crew Resource Management (CRM) approach to all future Virgin
Galactic SpaceShipTwo operations in a manner consistent with the pre-existing CRM program VG has employed for WK2 operations. This includes, as a minimum:

  • Standardized procedures and call outs
  • Challenge/response protocol for all safety-critical aircrew actions, to include feather lock handle movement
  • Formalized CRM training

Status: Completed by VG

4) Conduct a comprehensive internal safety review of all SpaceShipTwo systems to identify and eliminate any single-point human performance actions that could result in a catastrophic event.

Status: An initial assessment was completed and modifications to SS2-002 are in progress. Virgin Galactic will continually evaluate and improve System Safety throughout SpaceShipTwo’s lifecycle.

5) Conduct a comprehensive external safety review of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company’s engineering, flight test and operations as well as SpaceShipTwo itself.

Status: Initial Assessment Completed. The external review team will review the program both prior to commencement of flight test activities as well as prior to entering commercial service.

6) Ensure Virgin Galactic employs pilots who meet or exceed the highest standards and possess a depth and breadth of experience in high performance fighter-type aircraft and/or spacecraft. Minimum VG qualifications during the flight test program shall be:

  • A long course graduate of a recognized test pilot school with a minimum of 2.5 years post-graduation experience in the flight test of high performance, military turbojet aircraft and/or spacecraft.
  • A minimum of 1000 hours pilot in command of high performance, military turbojet aircraft.
  • Experience in multiengine non-centerline thrust aircraft
  • Experience in multi-place, crewed aircraft and/or spacecraft

These criteria are based on industry best practices for flight testing, using DCMA INST 8210.1C, paragraph 4.3 as guidance.

Status: Completed. All current Virgin Galactic pilots exceed the above minimum VG standards.

Virgin Galactic Misled Ticket Holders, Public on Complexity of Engine Change

RocketMotorTwo firing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

RocketMotorTwo firing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

When Virgin Galactic announced it was switching from the nitrous oxide/rubber rocket engine they had flown on SpaceShipTwo three times to one powered by nitrous oxide and nylon, company officials told ticket holders and the public the change involved only minor modifications to Richard Branson’s space tourism vehicle.

A document released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board directly contradicts that claim. In  it, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety expert describing his concern over “major modifications” that had been made in the suborbital space plane to accommodate the new engine.

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Experts: FAA Review Process for SpaceShipTwo Flawed, Subject to Political Pressure

SpaceShipTwo fuselage (Credit: NTSB)

SpaceShipTwo fuselage (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an experimental permit to Scaled Composites to begin flight tests of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in 2012 despite serious deficiencies in the company’s application relating to safety analysis and risk mitigation, according to documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week.

When renewing the annual permit in 2013 and 2014, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) issued waivers that exempted Scaled Composites from explaining how it evaluated and planned to mitigate against human and software errors that could cause a fatal accident.

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Scaled Composites Statement on NTSB Findings


scaled_logoMOJAVE, Calif. (Scaled Composites PR) — Our business is to design prototype, cutting-edge aircraft.  Safety has always been a critical component of Scaled’s culture and, as the NTSB noted today, our pilots were experienced and well-trained.  As part of our constant and continuing efforts to enhance our processes, we have already made changes in the wake of the accident to further enhance safety.  We will continue to look for additional ways to do so. We extensively supported the NTSB’s investigation and appreciate all of its work to make the industry safer. Mike Alsbury exemplified the passion that all our employees share. He and his family are always in our thoughts, and they are especially so today.

The Breakup of SpaceShipTwo Frame by Frame From the Tail Boom

Engine start on SpaceShipTwo.(Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Engine start on SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

The following sequence is extracted from a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) document about the loss of SpaceShipTwo last October. The images show the breakup of the vehicle from a camera on one of the tail booms. The premature unlocking of the feather mechanism resulted in aerodynamic pressures deploying the movable tail booms during powered ascent.

NTSB experts did the annotation on the photos and the narrative that accompanies the images. The sequence spans 3 seconds.

Figure 62 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 62 (Credit: Scaled Composites/NTSB)

Figure 62 is the last frame exported from the recording that shows the feather in a undeployed and nominal position. A vertical line was drawn at the intersection of the right boom’s leading edge and the contour of the upper fuselage structure to illustrate the feather’s relative position. In every frame prior to this, the feather position is nominal. By figure 62 and forward, the exported images show positive feather movement indicated by the incongruity between the vertical line and the relative position of the right boom’s leading edge and the contour of the fuselage.

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A Detailed Account of Pete Siebold’s Survival in the SpaceShipTwo Crash

Pete Siebold descending under parachute after the breakup of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Pete Siebold descending under parachute after the breakup of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a summary of an interview it conducted with Scaled Composites pilot Pete Siebold, who was in command of SpaceShipTwo when it broke up over the Mojave Desert last Oct. 31 during a flight test. Siebold was thrown clear of the ship and managed to parachute to safety, but not before passing out and struggling to activate his oxygen system. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was not as lucky; he died in the crash.

The following excerpt describes Siebold’s descent and landing from about 10 miles up, the extent of his injuries, and his treatment by medical personnel in the desert and at Antelope Valley Hospital.

Because he considered this a “high-risk” flight he stated that he took extra precautions and took time to think through scenarios that might happen and how he would rapidly respond in an emergency and activate his parachute and oxygen cylinder. About 10-15 minutes prior to release there was a period of low workload when he was able to physically feel for the parachute D-ring rip cord, oxygen activation pud, and the dual-lever seatbelts to improve his “muscle memory” in the event of an emergency. This was not a written procedure, but something he personally did on some flights.

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Branson’s Video Statement on NTSB Findings


NTSB Video Showing Premature Deployment of SpaceShipTwo Feather


Scale Composites SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight #4

CSF: SpaceShipTwo Provides Valuable Lessons Learned

The spot where SpaceShipTwo's cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The spot where SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

WASHINGTON, DC (CSF PR) — Today the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a public hearing to adjudicate the probable cause of last year’s SpaceShipTwo test flight accident, which resulted in an in-flight breakup. NTSB’s investigators and analysts presented their findings, conclusions, and recommendations in a draft report to the NTSB Board members. Throughout the discussion, NTSB staff and Board members praised the industry’s strong commitment to transparency and cooperation during the investigation, which helped lead to a more timely and complete resolution of the accident investigation.

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Initial NTSB Synopsis on SpaceShipTwo Accident


Public Meeting of July 28, 2015
(Information subject to editing)

In-Flight Breakup During Test Flight
Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo, N339SS
Near Koehn Dry Lake, California
October 31, 2014

This is a synopsis from the NTSB’s report and does not include the Board’s rationale for the conclusions, probable cause, and safety recommendations. NTSB staff is currently making final revisions to the report from which the attached conclusions and safety recommendations have been extracted. The final report and pertinent safety recommendation letters will be distributed to recommendation recipients as soon as possible. The attached information is subject to further review and editing.

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