Virgin Galactic Chides Premature Speculation, Continues Work on Second SS2 – UPDATE

Virgin Galactic Chides Premature Speculation, Continues Work on Second SS2 – UPDATE

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic issued a statement today (November 4) summarizing what has been learned so far about the crash of its SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane on October 31, saying that it “definitely dismisses the premature and inaccurate speculation that the problem was related to the engine or the fuel.”  A second SS2 vehicle is about 65 percent completed and “we are moving forward … with determination,” the company asserted.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that one of the two pilots on the powered test flight prematurely moved a switch from the lock to unlock position for a “feathering” system intended to slow the spaceplane as it descended from the highest point of its flight.  Instead, it was moved while the vehicle was still ascending and its rocket engine was firing.  Although moving that lever was one of two steps ostensibly needed to deploy the system, and the second step was never taken, the feathering system deployed on its own.  NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart emphasized that those are facts and not a conclusion as to the cause of the accident.  However, the idea is that resulting aerodynamic forces caused the spaceplane to break apart.  Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died.  The pilot, Peter Siebold, was seriously injured and remains hospitalized.

Early conjecture by some independent commentators who follow the company’s activities focused on a new rocket fuel being used in-flight for the first time on the October 31 test flight.  Charges were made that Virgin Galactic, which owns SS2, and/or Scaled Composites, the company that built SS2 and its predecessor SpaceShipOne, paid insufficient attention to safety.  In particular, critics noted that the new plastic-based fuel replaced an earlier rubber-based fuel only recently and not enough testing was done. Some asserted that SS2 had exploded in flight because of the fuel or its oxidizer (nitrous oxide).

The NTSB, however, found the engine and fuel and oxidizer tanks at the crash site.  Hart said they were intact and showed no sign of burn-through or of being breached, ruling out an explosion.  In addition, telemetry and cockpit video showed that the co-pilot moved the feathering system lever from lock to unlock at Mach 1.02 when it should not have been moved until Mach 1.4.

In its statement today, Virgin Galactic reiterated what it has been saying since the accident that “safety is our guiding principle,” adding that “any suggestions to the contrary are untrue.”  The company vowed to continue working closely with the NTSB “and will focus intense effort on its findings and guidance.”  

Virgin Galactic had plans to build five SS2 vehicles.  The one destroyed in this accident was the first and the only one completed.  A second vehicle is 65 percent complete, the company said, and they will continue to build it:  “While this has been a tragic setback, we are moving forward and will do so deliberately and with determination. … We owe it to all of those who have risked and given so much to stay the course and deliver on the promise of creating the first commercial spaceline.”

Hart said that NTSB’s investigation could take 12 months although the on-site portion at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA is almost complete. The locus for the remaining analysis will be moved to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington, D.C., he said last night.

Update:  The original version of this article cited statements by NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart on Monday evening that he had misspoken on Sunday when he said the co-pilot had prematurely moved the lever from lock to unlock and that it was the pilot in the right seat, but NTSB was not certain if that individual was the co-pilot.  However, NTSB subsequently tweeted that Hart misspoke on Monday, not on Sunday, and indeed it was the co-pilot who moved the lever.  This article has been updated to reflect that it was the co-pilot.

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