Investigation clears Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic over fatal flight

An independent review of the fatal crash of Richard Branson’s spaceship last year has found it was caused by pilot error
Investigation clears Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic over fatal flight
Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 sits in a desert field November 2, 2014 north of Mojave, California on The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 crashed on October 31, 2014 during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another. (Getty Images)
By Courtney Trenwith
Thu 30 Jul 2015 08:55 AM

An independent review of Virgin Galactic’s fatal spaceship accident in the US last year has concluded that it was caused by pilot error.

Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson and backed by Abu Dhabi, has been testing SpaceShipTwo in a bid to launch commercial space tourism.

The company has blamed responsibility for the fatal flight on the contractor performing the testing, Scaled Composites, and Branson said on Tuesday, following the conclusion of the investigation, Virgin Galactic “can now focus fully on a strengthened resolve to achieve our goals”.

Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died when the spaceship broke-up mid-air during its fourth rocket-powered test flight in October 2014.

Pilot Peter Siebold survived but suffered injuries during his parachute landing.

The fatal crash – Virgin Galactic’s second – also raised serious concerns about the viability of the mission. Several high profile people who had paid $250,000 to be on board one of the first trips to space have since pulled out of the venture, although one of the ticket holders, Dubai-based businessman Ashish J Thakkar, told Arabian Business he continued to support the mission.

The investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency, found the crash was caused when Alsbury prematurely unlocked a “feathering” mechanism designed to slow a descending craft while it was still climbing. He unlocked it about 14 seconds prior to SpaceShipTwo reaching the minimum unlocking speed required by the flight manual, NTSB found.

The move caused aerodynamic forces to push the feather system to extend, resulting in the in-flight breakup of the spaceship.

There was no mechanical malfunctions and other factors such as vehicle systems and structure, weather or pre-existing medical or physical conditions were proven not to have contributed to the accident.

The NTSB made 10 recommendations, including eight referred to the US Federal Aviation Administration, and two directed at the commercial spaceflight industry in general. No recommendations were made directly to Virgin Galactic.

The detail of those recommendations are not yet available on the NTSB website.

In its statement, Virgin Galactic said even without an NTSB recommendation or requirement to do so, it had designed a mechanism to prevent the feather from being unlocked at the wrong time in future flights.

The company initiated safety reviews and a vehicle improvement program prior to the accident and retracted responsibility for flight testing from Scaled Composites.

It also had increased pilot training and crew resource management in flight.

Branson said the company would move forward with its space tourism plans rather than allow the fatality to bring to an end the dream.

"Although we will never forget the tragic loss of Michael Alsbury, with the investigation completed, Virgin Galactic can now focus fully on a strengthened resolve to achieve our goals,” he said.

“It is important that our collective efforts and sacrifices are not in vain but serve to inspire others to make big dreams come true."

Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said: "We remain as humbled as ever by the difficulty of our work and the challenges of space.

“To date, only 549 people have gone to space and we are as passionate and resolved as ever to increase that number. The goal of people around the world to access space is as unwavering as the commitment of our team and brave pilots like Mike.

“We are encouraged by the progress to date with our second spaceship, and we look to the future with hope and determination."

Whitesides said in April Virgin Galactic would begin testing a second spaceship this year.

Branson has insisted the first passengers would take-off early 2016 – one of his many missed deadlines – but that date is again looking ambitious.

For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.