Pilot error has been blamed for a failed flight of Virgin Galactic’s historic SpaceShipTwo, which crashed into the Mojave desert 10 months ago.
The official cause, determined by the National Traffic Safety Board, was the early deployment of the aircraft’s braking system, Bloomberg reported.
The NTSB determined that co-pilot Michael Alsbury engaged the aircraft’s brake system 10 seconds too early. He may have done this because he didn’t want the abort the plane; the brake must be applied at a certain point, and if it’s not done before then, aborting is necessary, The Verge added.
SpaceShipTwo crashed instead, the early braking causing a “catastrophic structural failure.” In other words, the plane tore apart. Alsbury was killed and Pilot Peter Siebold ejected at 50,000 feet. He survived thanks to a parachute, but wasn’t wearing a pressurized spacesuit.
The NTSB’s findings have raised concerns both about the performance of the Virgin Galactic pilots and the design of its aircraft.
The accident occurred last October. It was the test flight for craft that in mere months was supposed to jettison paying customers to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, giving birth to space tourism, the vision of Virgin Galactic’s owner, Richard Branson.
This is the way the trip should go: the craft starts out its flight behind a carrier called WhiteKnightTwo and them climbs 68 miles (or 360,000 feet). At that height, space tourists can experience weightlessness and view the curvature of the Earth. They reportedly will pay $250,000 for the experience.
The Verge provided the technical details that reveal what went wrong when the Virgin Galactic test flight crashed.
The brake system in question is actually two tail wings, which reposition when the spacecraft hits a specific speed; this creates drag, slowing it down. It’s engaged with a series of levers that both pilots must crank into place. But the NTSB found that Alsbury began this process early, and the wings repositioned without the levers being pulled. The wings apparently moved a bit too much, and the spaceship crashed.
The manufacturer said that when it designed SpaceShipTwo, it didn’t consider that a pilot would unlock this braking system before the correct point. Now, Virgin Galactic has said an inhibitor has been added to prevent that from happening again.
Despite the fact that because of his actions, the spaceship crashed into the desert, the NTSB noted that Alsbury as “very professional.”
[Photo Courtesy Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images]