Virgin Galactic is no longer partnering with Scaled Composites on SpaceShipTwo development, following a report by the National Traffic Safety Board. Virgin Galactic contracted the design and testing of SpaceShipTwo to Scaled Composites. The pilots involved in the SpaceShipTwo crash last October were both Scaled Composites employees.
Virgin Galactic emphasized Scaled Composites’ role as a contractor, and announced that they would be taking over design and testing of future versions of SpaceShipTwo following the report, but that Scaled Composites would still be involved in a consultation capacity.
“With VG assuming full responsibility of the development of the second spaceship, the formal agreement for development has ended but we still have a continued relationship and an agreement for parts and services,” said Virgin Galactic.
SpaceShipTwo crashed on October 31, 2014, when co-pilot Michael Alsbury activated the brake system a few seconds after the engine fired. The brake system was meant to be locked until the craft reached speeds of Mach 1.4. The brake system is designed to produce drag, but because it was engaged too early, the resulting forces tore the craft apart. The crash killed Michael Alsbury, and left the pilot badly injured.
Scaled Composites took heavy criticism in the NTSB report. The investigation determined that Scaled Composites didn’t take human error into account, assuming the pilots would know how to respond based on simulation training. Unfortunately, the simulation failed to replicate the stressful conditions of rocket flight, such as heavy vibrations and increased gravitational forces.
“Humans will screw up anything if you give them enough opportunity. It’s important to anticipate errors,” said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the safety board.
The NTSB questioned whether there was adequate training material emphasizing the danger of engaging the braking system too early. They also cited time pressures as a possible factor, stating that training emphasized not waiting too long to engage the brakes.
“Safety has always been a critical component of Scaled’s culture. We extensively supported the NTSB’s investigation and appreciate all of its work to make the industry safer. Mike Alsbury exemplified the passion that all our employees share. He and his family are always in our thoughts, and they are especially so today.” Scaled Composites responded in a statement.
Virgin Galactic is already working on a new version of SpaceShipTwo. The new design has improved safety features in the wake of the accident, including installing an inhibitor on the brake system.
[Image courtesy of Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images]