A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.

This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.

In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.

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A Niche in Time: One Chute

SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight on March 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.

“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.

“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”

The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.

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Branson Still Doesn’t Really Understand Why SpaceShipTwo Crashed

SpaceShipTwo breaks up. (Credit: NTSB)

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson was interviewed for the Jan. 30 edition of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast. Beginning at 25:44, there’s a brief discussion of the October 2014 crash that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed co-pilot Mike Alsbury.

Branson recalls that for the first 12 hours after the accident he wasn’t sure if the SpaceShipTwo program would continue. “But, once we realized it was a pilot error and not a technical error, I was able to tell all the engineers it was nothing to do with them. And that the basic craft was sound.”

Alas, most of this explanation is wrong.

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SpaceShipTwo Drop Test Set for Tuesday

SpaceShipTwo glides toward a landing with its chase plane close behind at lower right. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo glides toward a landing with its chase plane close behind at lower right. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Virgin Galactic plans to conduct the first glide test of the second SpaceShipTwo on Tuesday, Nov. 1. It will be the first flight of the spaceship and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft since a captive carry test on Sept. 8.

The flight, which will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port, will come two years and 1 day after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a powered test flight, killing Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Pete Siebold.

Virgin Galactic pilot C.J. Sturckow confirmed the date of the flight test during an event on Saturday at the Explorers Club in New York City, according to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust.

Sturckow told attendees Virgin Galactic plans “‘spot check’ the glide flight envelope of SS2 and move into powered flight tests in early 2017,” according to a tweet posted by Foust.

Character, Candor & Competence: Lessons From the SpaceShipTwo Crash

SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

One of the most interesting aspects of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the SpaceShipTwo crash was how it pulled back the curtain on what was actually going on in the program being undertaken in Mojave. Over the years, the rhetoric has been frequently at odds with reality.

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Shock, Tears & Spin: The Aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo Crash

SpaceShipTwo's right boom. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo’s right boom. (Credit: NTSB)

Part 5 in a Series

In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager dismissed Tom Wolfe’s “right stuff” as a meaningless phrase for describing a pilot’s attributes. Good pilots are not born, they are made. Yeager attributed his success to a combination of natural abilities (good coordination, excellent eyesight, intuitive understanding of machinery, coolness under pressure) and good old-fashioned hard work. He worked his tail off learning how to fly, learned everything he could about the aircraft he flew, and spent more time flying them than anyone else.

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Pete Siebold’s Harrowing Descent

SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight. (Credit: Brandon Wood/NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight. At the upper left, the main fuselage without its tail booms continues to vent nitrous oxide while in an inverted flat spin. The crew cabin is tumbling in the lower right of the photo. (Credit: Brandon Wood/NTSB)

Part 4 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As far as C.J. Sturckow could tell, everything was going perfectly. Flying an Extra plane at 14,000 feet above Koehn Lake, he and photographer Mark Greenberg watched SpaceShipTwo drop cleanly from WhiteKnightTwo and light its engine. The rocket ignition was “beautiful,” the plume color looked fine, the ship’s trajectory appeared to be right on the mark. And then–

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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)

Part 3.2 in a Series

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.

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A Good Light, Then a Fatal Mistake

WhiteKnightTwo takes off carrying SpaceShipTwo on its final flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
WhiteKnightTwo takes off carrying SpaceShipTwo on its final flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Part 3 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With World War II-era structures still dotting its flight line and industrial park, the Mojave Air and Space Port sometimes reminds visitors of the training base where Marine Corps fighter pilots learned to fly 70 years earlier. Just beyond the airport’s three runways is a giant boneyard full of scrapped 747s and other aircraft that would not look all that out of place to a time traveler who ventured forward from 30 or 40 years ago.

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SpaceShipTwo Pilots Faced Extremely High Work Loads

Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport before powered flight 3. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 2 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Mojave Air and Spaceport sits on 3,300 acres of California’s High Desert about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Since it opened in 1935, the facility had seen multiple uses – rural airfield for the mining industry, World War II Marines Corps training base, U.S. Navy air station and general aviation airport.

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SpaceShipTwo’s PF-04: A High-Risk Flight

Mike Alsbury
Mike Alsbury

Part 1 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Mike Alsbury’s day began with a 3 a.m. wake up at his home in Tehachapi, Calif. He showered, dressed and ate a breakfast that likely consisted of an apple and a granola bar.

Alsbury rarely awoke at so early; but this Oct. 31 was a flight test day. That meant a lot of people were getting up early for the latest milestone in the Tier 1B program. At least that’s what they called it at Alsbury’s employer, Scaled Composites. The rest of the world knew it as WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – the foundation of Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism program. Scaled built and tested the vehicles for the British billionaire’s spaceline, Virgin Galactic.

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Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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SpaceShipTwo: Lessons Learned on the Commercial Space Frontier

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

SpaceShipTwo had exploded.

At least that’s what it looked like from our vantage point at Jawbone Station on that fateful Halloween morning ten months ago. And that’s what it looked like in Ken Brown’s photos. Ken had been standing next to me, training his telephoto lens on the small spacecraft nine miles overhead.

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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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Siebold Shouted Yeehaw! Seconds Before Disaster Struck

Peter Siebold (Photo: Scaled Composites)
Peter Siebold (Photo: Scaled Composites)

Below is an excerpt from the cockpit recording of the SpaceShipTwo crash on Oct. 31, 2014. The transcript picks up as a controller gives the OK for the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship to release SpaceShipTwo. The spacecraft broke up 38 seconds later when its feather mechanism deployed prematurely during powered ascent. The powered portion of the flight lasted 11 seconds.

Descriptions of what is happening in the SpaceShipTwo cockpit and what pilot Pete Siebold and co-pilot Mike Alsbury are doing are in brackets [] and italics.

All times are given in UTC. The accident occurred at 10:07 a.m. PDT.

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