Virgin spaceship's descent system deployed early

AP Photo/NTSBIn this Nov. 1

AP Photo/NTSBIn this Nov. 1

An experimental rocket ship broke apart in flight over California's Mojave Desert after a device to slow the space plane's descent deployed too soon, federal investigators said.

The cause of Friday's crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has not been determined, but investigators found the “feathering” system — which rotates the twin tail “feathers” to create drag — was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed, National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said.

The system requires a two-step process to deploy. The co-pilot unlocked the system, but Hart said the second step occurred “without being commanded.”

“What we know is that after it was unlocked, the feathers moved into the deploy position, and two seconds later, we saw disintegration,” Hart said.

The finding moves away from initial speculation that an explosion brought down the craft.

The investigation is months from being completed, and officials are looking at factors that include pilot error, mechanical failure, design problems and whether pressure existed to continue testing, Hart said.

“We are not edging toward anything. We're not ruling anything out,” he said. “We are looking at all these issues to determine the root cause of this accident.”

The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash. Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted to the ground and is hospitalized with injuries.

Investigators have not interviewed Siebold because of his condition, Hart said.

Virgin Galactic — owned by billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — plans to fly up to six passengers at a time more than 62 miles above Earth, where they can experience weightlessness. The company sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000.

Branson told Sky News on Monday that the company will move forward despite the crash. He said there would be a “whole massive series of test flights” before any trips are made.

He still plans to be on the maiden voyage, with his family.

“We need to be absolutely certain our spaceship has been thoroughly tested — and that it will be — and once it's thoroughly tested, and we can go to space, we will go to space,” Branson said.

“We must push on. There are incredible things that can happen through mankind being able to explore space properly,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo tore apart Friday about 11 seconds after it detached from the underside of its jet-powered mother ship and fired its rocket engine for the test flight. Initial speculation was that an explosion occurred, but the fuel and oxidizer tanks and rocket engine showed no sign of being burned or breached, the NTSB said.

The feathering system is a feature unique to the craft to help it slow as it re-enters the atmosphere. After being unlocked, a lever must be pulled to rotate the twin feathers toward a nearly vertical position to act as a brake. After decelerating, the pilots reconfigure the feathers to their normal position so the craft can glide to Earth.

A review of footage from a camera mounted to the ceiling of the spaceship's cockpit showed the co-pilot moving the feathering lever to the unlock position, Hart said.

The feathers activated at Mach 1.0, the speed of sound, or 760 mph, Hart said. They should not have deployed until the craft had reached a speed of at least Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000 mph.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides issued a statement Sunday to tamp down on conjecture about the cause of the crash.

“Now is the time to focus on all those affected by this tragic accident and to work with the experts at the NTSB, to get to the bottom of what happened on that tragic day, and to learn from it so that we can move forward safely with this important mission,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development for years and has seen setbacks. In 2007, an explosion killed three people and critically injured three others during a ground test in the development of a rocket engine.

businessMojave desertScience & TechnologySpaceShipTwoVirgin Galactic

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, during a news conference on March 10, 2020. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
LA County suspends outdoor dining at restaurants as coronavirus surges

By Alex Wigglesworth Los Angeles Times Los Angeles County public health officials… Continue reading

Renderings of the main entrance to upcoming Mission Bay elementary school on Owens Street. (Courtesy photo)
SFUSD offers first look at planned Mission Bay elementary school

San Francisco school officials this month unveiled the design of a planned… Continue reading

James Coleman (Courtesy Morgan McCarthy)
Young progressive set to shake up South City

The 21-year-old is the newest Councilmember for District 4

Arturo Mendez, co-curator of the Mission Arts Performance Project, invites artists of all types to participate in the free-wheeling community program. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Mission Arts Performance Project could be poised for a comeback

Before the pandemic, the Mission Arts Performance Project, the roving multimedia art… Continue reading

B-Boy Spaghetti of Norway was among the international artists taking part in the world premiere of “Isolation in Humanity,” a collaboration commissioned by the International Hip Hop DanceFest festival showcasing b-boying, popping, krump, house, and contemporary dance. (Photo courtesy Ekopics)
Performers pop, lock, spin and sit at International Hip Hop DanceFest Saturday

Spinning, popping and flipping — and at times sitting — performers in… Continue reading

Most Read