MOJAVE (CBSLA.com) — Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the role pilot error may have had in the midflight failure and crash Friday of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
The craft, the first of five spacecraft ordered by the British commercial spaceflight company as a means of flying “space tourists” to low-Earth orbit, was performing a powered test flight for the first time in nine months.
The vehicle was testing a new fuel mixture for the first time.
After detaching from the carrier aircraft, all appeared normal when SS2 fired its engine.
Eleven seconds later, the aircraft broke apart and crashed into the Mojave Desert. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash, and pilot Peter Siebold, 43, suffered serious injuries after having parachuted from the aircraft, which left 5 miles of debris along the desert.
While the NTSB stated that it will take “months and months” of investigation to determine a clear cause of the anomaly, potential clues are beginning to surface.
Among other possibilities, investigators suspect pilot error, in part, may be to blame.
Virgin founder and business magnate Richard Branson discussed the tragedy and tells CBS that Virgin Galactic is determined to complete its next spacecraft.
“If it did turn out to be human error, we would obviously still need to make sure that it’s impossible for something like that to happen in the future,” Branson said on CBS “This Morning.”
Investigators believe that SS2’s breakup occurred due to a complication involving the spacecraft’s two tail stabilizers.
In a procedure known as “feathering,” a pilot will unlock then deploy the stabilizers. These rotate two tail booms upward to create drag and slow the spacecraft as it aligns into a “belly-up” position before re-entry into the atmosphere.
The procedure was designed to be used as a form of descent only. In the case of SS2’s crash Friday, it appears Alsbury, the co-pilot, unlocked the feathers early, as the spacecraft was still accelerating. NTSB says the breakup occurred after the craft passed Mach 1 — the speed of sound.
NTSB is using on-board surveillance footage from a camera mounted in the cockpit to investigate what happened during this acceleration.
Investigators say that at this stage, the pilot int he right seat is seen moving the feathering lever. They were unable to identify whether or not that individual was Siebold or Alsbury.
“Then the aerodynamic forces moved (the feathers) into that position,” NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said. “Shortly after that, the tapes terminate.”
SpaceShipTwo was a prototype for Virgin Galactic, which hoped to begin commercial flights as early as 2015.
Now, the prospective launch date for customers is on hold.
Virgin Galactic claims to have over 700 deposits of clients, including celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio, who have booked flights.
As much as $250,000 has been reported as the cost for a seat on the spacecraft.
Branson has stated that the company can and will provide refunds but notes that no refund requests have been filed.
“One of two people must be, naturally, extremely nervous at this stage,” Branson said. “We need to know exactly what happened.”