The first three passenger flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard have been long on symbolism. On the first one, Jeff Bezos invited Wally Funk, who in 1960 was one of 13 women who underwent the same medical checks as the Original Seven Mercury astronauts. NASA wasn’t accepting female pilots at the time, so Funk had to wait 51 years to reach space.
New Shepard’s second flight included starship Capt. James T. Kirk, or more precisely, the actor who played the “Star Trek” captain, William Shatner. The third flight had Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of America’s first astronaut to fly to space, who launched aboard a vehicle named after her father, Alan.
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.
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.