SpaceShip Two Crash Cause Confirmed — But Is There More To The Story?

The cause of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crash has been determined by investigators, according to Fox News. SpaceShip Two’s feathering system, which slows the spacecraft as it returns to Earth, deployed too early and without a prompt from the pilot. However, the accident remains under investigation by the NTSB.

Reportedly, the feathering system of SpaceShip Two requires a two-step process to activate. The pilot had unlocked the feathering system, but the system activated the second step of the activation on its own “without being commanded.”

The feathering system is a basic part of SpaceShip Two’s operations, and it is unique to the Virgin Galactic design. When the spacecraft hits Mach 1.4 (over 1,000 miles per hour), the system rotates two booms at the rear of the craft into a 90 degree position so they act as a rudder, according to Reuters. After SpaceShip Two slows, the feathering system retracts, and the craft glides back to Earth for landing.

What happened on October 31, according to investigators, was that the feathering system activated when the the spacecraft was moving at a speed of about Mach 1, which was too soon.

The two pilots involved were employees of Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary that designed and built the six-passenger, two-pilot craft for Virgin Galactic. Peter Siebold, 43, was the pilot riding in the right-hand seat of SpaceShip Two. Siebold parachuted to the ground and was recovering at a nearby hospital, Scaled Composites said in a statement. The co-pilot who died was Michael Alsbury, 39.

The questions to be answered now, regarding the SpaceShip Two crash, is why the second part of the feathering system activated on its own, and whether or not the first part of the feathering system, initiated by the pilot, was activated at the correct time.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, spoke at a press conference on Saturday regarding the SpaceShip Two crash.

“We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong. If we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on.”

The SpaceShip Two crash was the second crash in a week for the private space industry as a whole. On Tuesday, October 28, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station. The Virgin Galactic crash happened only three days later.

The private space industry has taken the lead in the last few years when its come to America’s presence in space. Ever since the decommission of the shuttle fleet, NASA has been focused primarily on the unmanned Mars landers. Meanwhile, the ESA (European Space Agency) will attempt to culminate its decade-long Rosetta mission by setting down a remote lander on a comet, collecting samples, and bringing them back to Earth — something that’s never been done in the history of mankind. China’s space program is currently in the midst of designing a manned landing on the moon.

In reaction to NASA’s stagnation and the United State’s apparent unwillingness to keep up with the rest of the world, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin is pushing hard for a manned colonization of Mars led by Americans — something that’s not as unrealistic as it sounds.

Acting Chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, stated that though they believe the cause of the SpaceShip Two crash was the early activation of the feathering system, they’re still looking for clues.

“We are not ruling anything out. We are looking at all of these issues to determine what was the root cause of this mishap… We are looking at a number of possibilities, including the possibility (of pilot error).”

[Image via NBC News]