Sunday, August 2, 2015

‘Space is hard’ did not cause SpaceShipTwo crash

Whenever a space-related accident happens, people chant “space is hard.”

Not this time. Virgin Galactic’s (VG) SpaceShipTwo (SS2) did not disintegrate and crash on October 31, 2014 near Koehn Dry Lake, California, because space is hard. A July 28, 2015 public meeting at National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) headquarters in Washington, D.C. made that clear.

The NTSB said SS2 broke up over the desert and crashed due to failings in planning, design, training, and certification. They didn’t mention unrealistic expectations from impatient know-nothings, but they could have.

Note that the written report, released as part of the minutes of the meeting under the title, In-Flight breakup during test flight, Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo, N339SS, near Koehn Dry Lake, California October 31, 2014, doesn’t include the NTSB’s reasons for its findings. The full report is coming soon.


The NTSB said the accident happened because SS2’s co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, unlocked the feathering system too soon.

The feathering system moves the tail assembly of SS2 to a position that increases drag to slow down the ship during re-entry. Although moving the assembly is a separate action from unlocking it, the aerodynamic load at that point in the flight overwhelmed the unlocked assembly, causing it to move prematurely. The resulting drag increased the aerodynamic load to the point where the ship broke up and crashed.

Some people will see “pilot error” and think that’s the main reason for the accident. The co-pilot, although an experienced and competent flyer, made a fatal mistake. The history of aviation is filled with similar stories. Blaming the co-pilot alone, though, is misguided.

Wayne Hale, a former NASA Space Shuttle program manager and Space Shuttle flight director explains in a blog post, Pilot error is never root cause, that pilot error is the end result of systemic failures. Mr. Hale says, “Pilot error is never ever a root cause.”

The NTSB report clearly states that Scaled Composites (SC), the company that built SS2 for Virgin Galactic, should have put in design features to prevent the co-pilot’s mistake. Instead, they ignored human factors entirely in their risk assessment and assumed the pilots would do everything perfectly.


Then there’s the performance, or non-performance, of the the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc wrote an excellent article about the FAA’s role in the accident, Experts: FAA review process for SpaceShipTwo flawed, subject to political pressure. It’s a good read about an ugly situation. Expect to hear more about this.

Veteran space writer Alan Boyle writes in an article at GeekWire, SpaceShipTwo findings put more pressure on FAA, that a number of companies besides Virgin Galactic are preparing their vehicles for testing. The FAA seems to be ill-equipped to deal with the situation without significant changes to their procedures.


The report may have convinced a flamboyant billionaire named Richard Branson to stop spin-doctoring facts and making rash promises about things he doesn’t understand. Well, mostly.

Based on his comments in a blog post at VG’s website, The end of NTSB’s investigation and the future of Virgin Galactic, our flamboyant billionaire thinks the NTSB report concludes the design of SS2 is sound. Two NTSB members, Chairman Christopher Hart and board member Robert Sumwalt, say otherwise.

Although the report doesn’t find evidence of structural, system, or engine failures, what our flamboyant billionaire overlooks is that a single point of failure due to human error is a design flaw. Both Mr. Hart and Mr. Sumwalt say so in a CBC News article, Virgin Galactic didn't prepare for human error ahead of SpaceShipTwo crash, NTSB.

It does seem that our flamboyant billionaire has gotten most of the message. In a document called VG & TSC NTSB Investigation Press Release, under Recommendations on page 6 it says the company will “Conduct a comprehensive internal safety review of all SpaceShipTwo systems to identify and eliminate any single-point human performance actions that could result in a catastrophic event.”

Under Status it says, “An initial assessment was completed and modifications to SS2-002 are in progress. Virgin Galactic will continually evaluate and improve System Safety throughout SpaceShipTwo’s lifecycle.”


Going forward, if the recommendations of the NTSB report are acted on industry-wide, experimental commercial space flight should be safer.

For those who still aren’t convinced that “space is hard” didn’t cause the SpaceShipTwo accident, perhaps a quote from NTSB Chairman Hart at the hearing will do the trick. The quote appears in the previously referenced CBC News article.

Many of the safety issues that we will hear about today arose not from the novelty of a space launch test flight, but from human factors that were already known elsewhere in transportation.”