Serious questions about both the safety of the crew and passengers arise from the revelation that the crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo was caused when one of the test pilots unlocked a device not intended to be deployed until much later in the flight. The device was part of a system unique to the spacecraft called “feathering” in which control surfaces are deflected to brake ascent minutes after the rocket engine closes down and descent begins—the effect has been compared with that of badminton shuttlecock.
I have discussed this with the former astronaut who correctly predicted for The Daily Beast that the cause of the crash seemed not to be the rocket engine. He agreed to discuss this, and other issues, on the basis that his comments would not be attributed to him for professional reasons.
First, I asked about the action taken by the co-pilot that led to the break-up of the vehicle.
“This is curious—why would the crew manually unlock the feathering so early, and only moments after the start of a critical event? And then having done that why did it actually feather, when apparently no crew command was given. There should have been a safeguard against that. This is a critical system that leaves you one failure away from catastrophe, as in this case. So those questions will need to be answered.”
The pilots had to evacuate the craft in extremely dangerous and hostile conditions—with it traveling at very high speed, into very cold and thin air. The survival of one of the pilots is remarkable, and the former astronaut says: “I don’t believe there was anything like an ejection pod in the Galactic aircraft. The crew wear parachutes and surviving vehicle breakup would then be a matter of chance as to whether or not you get thrown free.
“A single indestructible pressure vessel that is strong enough to survive a vehicle breakup event, and then descend automatically under its own large parachute would seem to be a viable approach. But that would require a major vehicle redesign and would carry a significant mass penalty that would hurt performance.
“The occupant safety being offered by Virgin Galactic is very reminiscent of the early days of the shuttle program. The first shuttle flights with two crew members used ejection seats and full pressure suits. But once larger crews flew, ejection was no longer possible.
“Crews only wore cotton flight suits and a helmet similar to that of a motor biker. No high altitude bailout protection was offered. It was not until after the Challenger accident that the folly of this approach was realized. The risks had been vastly underestimated. After Challenger all crews flew with full pressure suits and parachutes, and even then that did not help protect for very high and fast vehicle breakup as we saw with Columbia.”
And what of the six passengers in the cabin behind the crew?
“The Virgin Galactic experience as I presently understand it also does not offer any high-altitude bailout protection to the passengers. And given the unskilled nature of those paying passengers, I am not sure they ever can be given that protection since they might need to be able to operate complex systems—they are just unskilled passengers after all and not trained professionals or astronauts, despite what the Virgin Galactic publicity says.
“The need to protect occupants during high altitude flight is not to be underestimated by Virgin Galactic like it was in the early shuttle program. This accident will raise serious questions about whether or not that safety has been underestimated, and how much safety can then be realistically provided to the paying customers.”
The former astronaut agreed with me that it would be premature to assume that because they seems to have been an error made in the cockpit this will remove the previous concerns about the use of new rocket fuel. The actual rocket “burn” was so short there is no proof yet that it would perform safely and with sufficient power to meet the program’s ambitions. That would require the rocket to run for 55 to 60 seconds without a glitch.
Restarting the test program will depend on two things: The findings of the National Transportation Safety Board investigations, which could call for extensive changes to the design, and the availability of a replacement SpaceShipTwo.
The second vehicle is nearing completion by Mojave-based company Scaled Composites. This was due to be handed over to Galactic early in 2016 after Scaled Composites pilots completed test flights. Apparently some structural improvements have been made to the new craft on the basis of experience gained with the one that crashed.
In order to provide the kind of regular passenger service as imagined by Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic would need to build a fleet of the craft. That process cannot begin without first gaining Federal Aviation Administration certification to operate the vehicles with passengers—and having the financing to resume manufacturing.
As for the FAA, nobody knows what their standards will be for certifying flights like this that go so far beyond the limits of airline passenger flights. It reminds me of the experience that Boeing had with the FAA when, in the 1960s, the Boeing 747 was being certified. There was no previous experience of operating an airplane of that size, and so Boeing and the FAA inspectors worked out together the new standards required—like, for example, the number and placement of the cabin doors needed to evacuate the passengers in an emergency.
But in this case the leap from the known to the unknown is extreme. The standards of safety for astronauts could not match those for commercial aviation and, as the former astronaut explains, NASA was reactive rather than proactive. Military pilots face similar risks and, for them, the greatest safety advance was the ejector seat.
One thing is certain. There are many technical challenges remaining before passengers can be safely flown by Virgin Galactic, and the FAA cannot afford to be reactive. This program produces no “tech transfer” that will add to the progress of real space flight because it does nothing to advance knowledge that would be of use for any other purpose. It is adopting technology—in rocket propulsion, composite construction, and aerodynamic refinements—already in use elsewhere. It’s reasonable to argue that the only purpose of Galactic is entirely frivolous, to provide a joy ride for rich people (who won’t be so keen now).
Be that what it may, Branson himself saw another value in his company other than its technical achievements. In an interview with the Financial Times, given before Friday’s disaster, he said, “The space company will be our flagship company, because we’re the only private company in the world sending people to space, the next few months are obviously something that has a halo effect on every Virgin company.”