A descent feature in the Virgin Galactic passenger spacecraft that was deployed early appears to have played a critical role in the deadly crash last week. Just before it crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight, the tail lifted prematurely, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday night. Two levers were supposed to be pulled when the spacecraft reached a speed of Mach 1.4, allowing an action called “feathering” that lifts the tail to slow descent and create drag. But the cockpit video and other data showed one of the levers was unlocked early at Mach 1.0, Christopher Hart, the agency’s acting chairman, told reporters. “Pilot error is a possibility,” Hart said. He also said NTSB investigators found the aircraft’s fuel tanks, oxidizer tanks, and engine intact among the wreckage.
Hart said the aircraft seemed to have broken apart while in flight. “The debris field indicates an in-flight breakup,” he said. However, he also stressed the early findings had not produced final conclusions about the cause of the crash. “We are not ruling anything out. We are looking at all of these issues to determine what was the root cause of this mishap,” he said. The pilot of the spacecraft was killed and another badly injured in the Friday crash, which spread debris over a five-mile swath of desert. Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson traveled to the Mojave over the weekend, and said he believes space tourism will live on. Virgin officials also said they expect a new spacecraft to be ready by next year.