The National Transportation Safety Board's acting chairman, Christopher Hart, second from left, visits the scene of the SpaceShipTwo crash with pilot Todd Ericson, second from right, and NTSB investigators near Cantil, California on November 1, 2014. (National Transportation Safety Board)
On Friday, Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Galactic, unveiled the company’s newest spacecraft, named Virgin Space Ship Unity. The spacecraft will allow Virgin Galactic to continue its pursuit of space tourism almost 16 months after its first craft was destroyed in a flight-test accident.
The launch event featured Branson in a white SUV towing the brand new spacecraft, a christening by Branson’s one-year-old grandson, and celebrity appearances. The space tourism company got a boost in publicity from a recorded message from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who said he planned on getting on board the craft.
“If I am able to go – and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship,” Mr. Hawking said in his message.
Despite the hype and the $250,000 price tag for a seat, the last lingering question for potential patrons could be: Is it safe?
“We have a new spaceship that’s going to be ready in a few months,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said to TechTimes after the 2014 crash. “So we’re going to make sure we get that one as safe as we can and keep going.”
Virgin Galactic’s original SpaceShipTwo, which shared the same design as the new Space Ship Unity, experienced a catastrophic crash in October of 2014, killing one of the pilots and severely injuring the other. For a short time after the crash, many speculated whether it would be the end of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism aspirations, but the company recommitted after learning the crash was caused by piloting error.
A side-by-side comparison of the Virgin Space Ship Unity and the destroyed vehicle show little difference. The two are nearly identical with the same model and manufacturing of Unity began in 2012, before the accident or any redesigns occurred. However, the Unity does feature small safety additions.
A crucial pin has been added to prevent a pilot from accidentally unlocking the feathering mechanism on the ship’s tail, which caused the first crash, Mr. Whitesides told Reuters.
The aircraft is designed to take passengers to the outer edge of Earth's atmosphere, some 60 miles up, then gradually descend, slowed by the feather system – which creates aerodynamic drag as the craft returns to the ground.
The latest design reportedly features some improvements to make the landing gear more distinct have also been added.
Are those small changes enough? Yes, for enthusiasts. Maybe, for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The 2014 crash was caused by a piloting error, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also placed blame on Scaled Composites, who built the aircraft and employed the pilots, and cited the FAA for lax regulations, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The FAA’s current guidelines for spaceflight regulations have been focused on not hampering innovation with restrictions. The result is regulations around the safety of the environment, national security, and people on the ground, but a large amount of freedom for the company testing in the air.
It’s unclear how, but the FAA could change their regulations following the previous Virgin Galactic crash and the recommendations of the NTSB.
“We can expect more safety regulations on the industry,” Thomas Anthony, director of USC's Aviation Safety and Security Program told the Los Angeles Times. “Safety is always a balancing act, even with commercial aviation.”
However, safety concerns has not prompted hesitation or slowed ticket sales for enthusiasts. The Christian Science Monitor previously reported almost 700 people have signed up for rides at a price of $250,000 each.
“Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth,” Branson said in the press release.
NTSB Identification: DCA15MA019
Nonscheduled 14 CFR Part 437: Commercial Space Flight
Accident occurred Friday, October 31, 2014 in Koehn Dry Lake, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 08/05/2015
Aircraft: SCALED COMPOSITES 339, registration: N339SS
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Serious.
NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
The Safety Board's full report is available at http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/AccidentReports.aspx. The Aerospace Accident Report number is NTSB/AAR-15/02.
On October 31, 2014, at 1007:32 Pacific daylight time, the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) reusable suborbital rocket, N339SS, operated by Scaled Composites LLC (Scaled), broke up into multiple pieces during a rocket-powered test flight and impacted terrain over a 5-mile area near Koehn Dry Lake, California. The pilot received serious injuries, and the copilot received fatal injuries. SS2 was destroyed, and no one on the ground was injured as a result of the falling debris. SS2 had been released from its launch vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), N348MS, about 13 seconds before the structural breakup. Scaled was operating SS2 under an experimental permit issued by the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) according to the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 437.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
Scaled Composites' failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot's premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle.