Design oversight and human error the causes of the October 31, 2014 accident at the spaceplane SpaceShipTwo

The spaceplane SpaceShipTwo connnected to its mothership White Knight Two
The spaceplane SpaceShipTwo connnected to its mothership White Knight Two

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced the conclusions of the investigation on the incident that on October 31, 2014 caused the destruction of Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane SpaceShipTwo with the consequent death of its co-pilot and the injuring of its commander. It turned out that the co-pilot unlocked the braking system too early and the SpaceShipTwo design included no security system to avoid the catastrophic consequences of that mistake.

Scaled Composit, Virgin Galactic’s partner company that built the SpaceShipTwo, was carrying out what was supposed to be one of several tests of the spaceplane SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Enterprise (photo ©Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg). Various tests went well but on October 31, 2014 something went wrong causing its destruction.

The VSS Enterprise separated from the mothership White Knight Two and regularly turned on its engine but after eleven seconds was torn to pieces. The initial news was chaotic and initially the names of the VSS Enterprise pilots weren’t revealed to allow first of all to shed light on their conditions.

Later, Virgin Galactic reported that commander Peter Siebold managed to escape, while reporting serious injuries, because his seat was ejected when the VSS Enterprise had gone to pieces. Unfortunately, his co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in the accident.

The NTSB investigation determined that Michael Alsbury unlocked the braking system too early. It’s based on the mechanism that allows the airfoil to change shape obtaining a braking effect similar to that of a shuttlecock used in badminton. That maneuver performed at the wrong time caused a catastrophic effect with the structural failure of the VSS Enterprise.

According to the NTSB, the fact that there was no security system to prevent human error from causing the destruction of the spaceplane is an oversight. Scaled Composit’s test pilots are very experienced but the VSS Enterprise is an experimental aircraft and piloting it pushes its pilots to their limits.

It’s a very harsh lesson for the project SpaceShipTwo, for Scaled Composit, for Virgin Galactic and its owner Richard Branson. New security measures have already been designed because the cause of the accident was identified in the preliminary stages of the investigation. Now Branson intends to begin suborbital tourism commercial flights around the end of 2017.

This video was shown at an NTSB meeting and shows the spaceplane SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise during its last flight.

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