NTSB Investigation of SS2 Accident Begins, Branson on Site at Mojave

NTSB Investigation of SS2 Accident Begins, Branson on Site at Mojave

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, arrived in Mojave, CA today following the crash of his SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane yesterday.  The crash killed one pilot and seriously injured a second.  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators also arrived today to begin their investigation into what happened.

Branson praised the bravery of test pilots and the resilience of the team at Mojave working on SS2, and profoundly thanked all who had sent notes of condolence and support since the accident occurred at about 10:00 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) yesterday, shortly after SS2 separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft during a test flight.

“We have always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project,” he said at the Mojave Air and Space Port this morning PDT.  He stressed that the Virgin Galactic development effort has had safety as its number one priority, and the project’s “comprehensive testing program” is designed to “ensure this never happens to the public.”

Branson did not release the name of either pilot involved in the accident.   One died at the scene, the other was transported to a hospital.   The Los Angeles Times reported today that the Kern County Coroner’s office identified the pilot who died as 39-year-old Michael Alsbury.  He and the injured pilot, whose name has not been released, both worked for Scaled Composites, the company that built SS2 and its predecessor SpaceShipOne. 

“The bravery of test pilots generally cannot be overstated. … We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly — to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy,” Branson said.

Virgin Galactic’s goal is to send anyone who can afford a ticket (currently priced at $250,000) on a suborbital trip to space in a small, reusable spaceplane.  The spaceplane is attached to a large aircraft for ascent to about 45,000 feet.  It then detaches and falls away from the carrier aircraft, lights its rocket engine and travels in an arc to an altitude above 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (though not legally defined) boundary between air and space.  After a few minutes, the spaceplane glides back to land on Earth.  SpaceShipOne achieved this feat twice within seven days in 2004, winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.  Very soon thereafter, Branson, head of the Virgin Group that includes Virgin Airlines, partnered with Scaled to turn the idea into a commercial venture.  The company is now entirely owned by Virgin Galactic, but Scaled continues to be the builder.   SS2 was the first of a planned five spaceplanes.  A second reportedly is already under construction.

Branson sounded determined to discover the problem, fix it, and fly again during his prepared remarks, but when asked if it was “fair to say the dream lives on,” he gave a more nuanced answer:  “we owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong, and … if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on.”

Branson spoke shortly after the acting chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, held a press conference essentially to announce that NTSB investigators had arrived on site and the investigation has begun.  The investigator-in-charge is Lorenda Ward and the investigation team includes experts in structures, systems, engines, vehicle performance, and operations. 

Hart noted that this is the first time the NTSB is leading the investigation of a spaceflight accident.   Although it participated in the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accident investigations, he said, “this will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch that involved persons on board.”  The NTSB is participating in the investigation of the Antares rocket failure on October 28, but Orbital Sciences Corporation is in charge of that one and it did not have any crew on board.

Another NTSB press conference on the SS2 accident is scheduled for 8:00 pm PDT tonight(Saturday, November 1). 

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.