What Went Wrong with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
As investigators piece together the details, Douglas Messier—who witnessed the crash from the desert floor—reports on the warning signs that preceded the disaster, the already rampant finger-pointing, and the viability of space tourism.
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Late on the night of Thursday, October 30, as I prepared to turn in at my home in California City, California, an email arrived from my English friend Carolynne Campbell about the SpaceShipTwo flight planned for the next morning.
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“Flying today! I do hope it’s another glide test,” she wrote. “If it’s a powered flight, I’m fairly optimistic that no-one will come to any harm. It’s the fourth or fifth (when they get cocky) that worry me.”
“I wish I had your confidence in them,” I replied. “I think they’re perfectly capable of fucking this up immediately.”
The flight—the first for SpaceShipTwo with a new engine and modifications to the fuselage—had worried me for months. It had driven me to distraction during my waking hours and seeped into my dreams. My sources were worried, which means I was worried. A lot.
I set my cell phone alarm for 6 A.M. and drifted off to sleep.
At just after 10 the next morning, at a spot in the Mojave Desert called the Jawbone Canyon Ranger Station, my colleagues Ken Brown and Tom Mumey were pointing cameras upward in anticipation as SpaceShipTwo’s carrier craft—WhiteKnightTwo, with dual white contrails streaming behind it—flew overhead, against a background of high-altitude cirrus clouds. The contrails were always produced minutes before the drop, to allow the tracking cameras to find the vehicles.
We watched as SpaceShipTwo separated from its mother ship. As I filmed, Ken and Tom clicked away.
Seconds after the separation, SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine came on and the craft soared skyward, quickly passing WhiteKnightTwo, which had veered off in a different path. Yellow flames shot out, and for the first eight seconds everything looked good. A clean burn.
But then we saw something very unusual. The engine seemed to stop suddenly and then start again. At least, that’s what it looked like from the ground.
Only nine seconds into the burn, a white cloud surrounded SpaceShipTwo. A cloud of gas—probably nitrous oxide—enveloped the spacecraft. “They’re in trouble,” Ken said as he snapped away with his camera.
High overhead, the twin tail booms separated as the back of the ship was torn away. The rest of the vehicle flipped over in less than a second, leaving the two-man crew in an inverted position.
“They’re tumbling,” Ken said.
“Tumbling?” I asked.
My worst fear—one that had kept me up at night for months, turning my dreams into nightmares—was coming true in the sky overhead. I began breathing heavily, almost hyperventilating.
By now, I had lost sight of SpaceShipTwo—or what was left of it—in the clouds. I was able to spot WhiteKnightTwo; it looked fine.
“Something might have hit the ground over there,” Tom said.
Off in the distance, I saw a cloud of dirt rise up from the desert, maybe a mile away. It wasn’t long before I saw a second cloud of dirt, and then a third.
“Oh, my god!” I said.
While I was trying to stay calm, Ken was taking pictures, following the largest piece of debris—the back end of SpaceShipTwo—down to the desert floor. It hit near a dry lake bed that we thought was approximately six miles away, four minutes after the vehicle broke up. Ken stopped shooting and we headed in the direction of the crash.
We tried to reach the wreckage that Ken had tracked, but the road leading to it was blocked by construction. The work crew sent us on a detour, and we drove down a desert byway called Cantril Road until we saw a debris field. It was 10:19 A.M.
Parts of SpaceShipTwo were strewn across the road and the surrounding desert, in a rough circle maybe 100 feet across. What we saw was mostly small pieces—pipes and sections of SpaceShipTwo’s composite fuselage, including one piece that had the ship’s name on it.
I also noticed something else—a brown boot in the road, with part of a foot still inside. A short distance away, near a small crater in the dirt, was the seat containing the body of co-pilot Michael Alsbury. I gasped and covered my mouth.
That morning, I interviewed two truck drivers who had passed the impact site seconds before the debris hit, each one going in the opposition direction. They both immediately stopped and ran back to the scene. One of the drivers, who told me he had done two tours of duty in Iraq, had turned over the seat to see if he could do something for Alsbury. But it was too late.
For the next 15 minutes or so, we quietly and respectfully took photos of the wreckage. This was an accident site and it needed to be documented. But we were careful not to move or disturb anything. The investigators who arrived shortly after we did would want to know where everything had landed.
Then we left, traumatized, to go tell the world what we had seen. The next 36 hours would be a blur of blog and Twitter posts, phone calls, radio and television interviews, and a hastily called press conference. I would not sleep a wink on Friday night. It was not until late Saturday that I would be in my own bed again.
On Sunday night, we got our first solid information about what happened to SpaceShipTwo. At a news conference in Mojave, National Transportation Safety Board acting director Christopher Hart dropped a bombshell.
The cause was not what I’d been worried about, a possible failure of the craft’s new hybrid motor. That had performed well, and the engine and fuel tanks had been recovered intact.
Instead, SpaceShipTwo’s feather re-entry system deployed prematurely. The pilots were supposed to conduct a test of the system, which deploys two tail booms, when the ship hit a speed of Mach 1.4. Instead, the booms were deployed at Mach 1.0, when SpaceShipTwo was at a lower altitude. The tail booms were torn off in the thicker atmosphere nine seconds into engine firing. SpaceShipTwo broke apart in two seconds.
Why did it happen? Hart said cockpit video shows that Alsbury had moved one of the two levers needed to deploy the booms as the ship reached Mach 1.0. It was a mystery, however, why the feathering system deployed, because the other lever was not moved.
It was a startling development, one that indicated a possible combination of pilot error and a failure of a fail-safe mechanism that should have kept the booms from moving.
Hart said months of additional analysis will be needed to formulate a conclusion about the root cause. Investigators would also look at the safety culture of Virgin Galactic, pilot training, and other factors.
In the meantime, some obvious questions need to be addressed. What are the implications for Richard Branson’s ambitions to launch a sub-orbital space tourism industry? And for the commercial space industry in general?
For Branson, it means he probably won’t be flying into space anytime next year. His goal was to have all the flight testing of SpaceShipTwo wrapped up quickly in the next few months. Virgin Galactic would then move everything down to Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico, for the first commercial flight, which Branson plans to take with his son, Sam. The company had hoped to accomplish all these things by March of 2015, paving the way for the first of several hundred ticket holders to begin taking flights in the months that followed.
Virgin Galactic says it has a second SpaceShipTwo that’s about 65 percent complete. Officials say they can finish it and have it in flight tests next year. If that’s true, perhaps Branson can fly into space in 2016.
However, the investigation still has a long way to go, and it’s difficult to know what else officials might find, or the full extent of changes that might be required in SpaceShipTwo.
Some safety experts have told me the flight test schedule that Virgin Galactic has laid out, which includes a handful of flights with the new engine before beginning commercial service, is overly aggressive. They would like to see many more flight tests before Branson or any paying customers fly. Given the horrendous nature of the accident, Virgin might become much more conservative in the flight testing once they and its partner company, Scaled Composites, complete the second SpaceShipTwo.
We will learn more about that in the days and weeks ahead.