Crash of SpaceShipTwo Likely the Beginning of the End for Virgin Galactic

The crash and total destruction, of the only flying sub-orbital vehicle produced by Virgin Galactic will probably lead to the cancellation of the first attempt at flying paying customers to the edge of space.  The mishap last Friday (31OCT14) resulted in the death of test pilot Michael Alsbury and serious injuries to the other pilot, Pete Siebold, both working for Scaled Composites, the company contracted to build and test SpaceShipTwo. The oft-delayed, and over-hyped (by Uber-marketeer Richard Branson) program promised much more than it could ever deliver, as I’ve blogged about before. Apparently others more familiar with the program than I have had serious concerns that the rocket plane could even get its tourists to near space. As an aerospace engineer who has worked in crew safety for much of my career, including crew escape studies for the Space Shuttle and the X-30 aerospace plane, I was always concerned about the lack of safety systems not just for the test pilots, but also for the eventual paying passengers on SpaceShipTwo. In spite of what the press has erroneously reported (check out this totally false graphic from the British Daily Mail. It shows the old Stanley escape capsule used in the B-58 Hustler bomber from the 1950’s!), there were no ejection seats provide for the test pilots of SpaceShipTwo. They only had parachutes for manual bailout, plus they did not wear pressure suits. My opinion is that the pilot who survived was most likely thrown clear from the wreckage during vehicle breakup, while the co-pilot who died was trapped in the wreckage and never had a chance to open his chute. Since neither pilot was wearing a pressure suit, there was the additional danger associated with rapid decompression, which becomes deadlier the higher you fly. I can’t even imagine how Virgin Galactic expects to take paying customers up to 62 miles without any pressure suits, let alone some type of crew escape. If you want to see how serious crew safety should be conducted for space flight, read former astronaut Tom Jone’s excellent article, “Surviving a Bad Day”, page 12, in the September 2014 issue of Aerospace America.

I wonder if Richard Branson’s continuous hype of the program, through his statements that commercial flights were just around the corner, placed subtle pressure on the engineers of Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic to compress the test schedule or cut corners on safety. As I’ve said before, spaceflight is very hard, and if paying tourists expect the same safety and reliability of a commercial airliner, they have been sorely mislead. With all the intense technical scrutiny (much of it not very flattering, I’m sure) of Virgin Galactic resulting from this mishap, I don’t think Virgin will have the funding or the support to retool the program to the point where it will every produce a safe, reliable space vehicle for carrying tourists to the edge of space. Sadly it took the death and serious injury of two fine test pilots before they found this out.