An all-too-predictable human error led to Virgin Galactic’s deadly crash last year

Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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The brash promises of Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic met reality in the plain confines of a bureaucratic committee room in Washington DC.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the US agency that investigates major transit accidents, found that human error—abetted by a lack of planning—led to the October 2014 crash of the company’s $400 million flagship spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, which broke up over California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight. The accident killed one of the pilots and seriously injured another.

The deceased co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, apparently unlocked a rotating wing known as the “feather” before the correct deployment time. The wing fell into position too early, causing the catastrophic failure of the flight.

Virgin Galactic built and designed SpaceShipTwo as part of a joint venture with Scaled Composites, an experimental aerospace company. The craft was designed to be carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet on a conventional airplane before detaching and rocketing up to 100 kilometers of altitude.

Scaled Composites’ founder Burt Rutan, who designed the first privately funded vehicle to reach space, famously eschewed computerized control.

“The pilot sits there and the computer flies it,” he complained of modern spacecraft in a 2004 New Yorker profile. ”They don’t trust the pilot to fly it. If space is going to be cheap, it has to be stick-and-rudder.”

But a major criticism from the NTSB was that there were no safeguards to prevent the co-pilot’s error.

“During design, Scaled did not consider the possibility that a pilot would unlock the feather before 1.4 Mach and as such no safeguards were built into the feather system designed to prevent this,” NTSB investigator Katherine Wilson said. “Although program personnel said that they were aware that unlocking it during transonic flight would be catastrophic, there was no warning, caution or limitation in the pilot operating handbook or test card that specified this risk.”

One member of the NTSB board, former airline pilot Robert Sumwalt, wondered if the flight system had given the co-pilot too many responsibilities during the initial moment of launch, leading to the error.

Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal reports, engineers at the venture had raised numerous questions internally about whether the company was following  appropriate standards. In some cases, parts allegedly were manufactured without being approved for flight, or approved for flight with tolerances of just hundreds of hours of flight time versus the industry standard of hundreds of thousands of hours of flight time.

Since the crash, Virgin executives have taken responsibility from Scaled Composites. Now, a Virgin Galactic division will supervise all manufacturing and development of the company’s SpaceShipTwo. Ground testing of a new spacecraft is expected to begin this year, but commercial operations will be delayed until at least 2017.

Virgin Galactic has battled scheduling problems throughout its existence, with Branson frequently proposing and then canceling plans for the first launch of the craft with passengers, starting with his first prediction that flights would begin in 2007.

The crash has also shone light on Virgin Galactic’s lackadaisical business plan. The company has reportedly accepted as many as 700 reservations for seats on SpaceShipTwo flights, at a cost of $250,000 each. It plans to brief customers in the days ahead about the results of the NTSB investigation, according to a leaked e-mail.