Sunday, November 02, 2014

Scaled Composites Model 339 SpaceShipTwo, N339SS, Scaled Composites: Accident occurred October 31, 2014 in Mojave, California


FAA  Flight Standards District Office: FAA Van Nuys FSDO-01 

For nearly a decade, champions of space tourism and other commercial ventures seeking to get beyond the atmosphere have predicted the rapid emergence of a new industry.

But a pair of launch failures last week, including Friday’s high-profile crash of a Virgin Galactic LLC rocket ship that broke apart miles above the earth killing one pilot and seriously injuring another, are prompting further questions about the future trajectory of such company-funded endeavors.

Already, proponents as well as critics of commercializing space travel are rethinking the likely pace of progress. Some predict difficulties obtaining additional private-equity funding for startup ventures, while others working in the industry worry about nagging propulsion problems and ways to restore public confidence.

“Recent events bring home the reality that we’re in a very dangerous phase” of pursuing myriad space activities relying on the private sector, said Howard McCurdy, a space history expert who teaches at American University. Launching rockets and vehicles “is always a very risky business,” he added, and no amount of ground tests “can duplicate the aerodynamic stresses and other conditions” of actual space flight.

Instead of aiming to quickly ramp up suborbital tourist flights to several each day, according to Mr. McCurdy, Virgin Galactic and perhaps other companies are bound to delay initiating service. Once trips commence, they “will probably be more akin to the early phases of mountain climbing,” he said, when exceptional rigors and dangers kept all but the bravest and strongest from participating.

Meanwhile, images and eyewitness accounts of what happened to SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane, during a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert Friday suggest its engine malfunctioned and may have started disintegrating shortly after being powered up. It was the vehicle’s fourth powered flight, but the first one using a new fuel mixture.

The craft, known as VSS Enterprise, was flown by a pair of test pilots working for partner Scaled Composites, a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39 years old, was killed and pilot Peter Siebold, the 43-year-old director of flight operations, survived, but sustained moderate to major injuries and was being treated at a nearby hospital, according to the Kern County Sheriff’s department. Virgin Galactic said in a statement Saturday that Mr. Siebold was alert and talking with his family and doctors. Both pilots were at the controls during SpaceShipTwo’s maiden unpowered flight in October 2010.

Champions of the current generation of “new space” projects--many pursued by small companies lacking pedigrees in rocketry or related technologies—argue that malfunctions and crashes always have been part of perfecting cutting-edge space hardware. On average over the past few decades, one out of the first three launches of both government and privately developed new rockets failed to perform as expected.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the most successful closely-held space company, had three early launch failures and officials feared for its very survival before the newly-designed Falcon family of rockets demonstrated reliability.

For a large chunk of the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force suffered a spate of botched launches that resulted in billions of dollars of losses stemming from destroyed satellites and lost rockets.

Notwithstanding recent events, “the entrepreneurial genie is out of the bottle and there is enough intelligence and desire to drive it forward,” said Peter Diamandis, chief executive of the XPrize Foundation, which encouraged development of SpaceShipTwo’s predecessor. “We should be focused on better design and more testing, not government regulation.”

To a considerable degree, the setback to the fledgling industry will depend on what investigators determine caused each accident. But according to some industry officials and analysts, Virgin Galactic’s fatal mishap may have a long-term residual impact as dramatic as the fallout from the 2003 in-flight breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven crew members.

“It’s clearly bad news for commercial space,” said one veteran industry official affiliated with another commercial space company, “but from the beginning people recognized a fatal event on some spacecraft was inevitable.”

Few think the government will revert to the previous authority it exerted over space projects. However, industry officials said the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the crash along with the National Transportation Safety Board, has authority to write additional rules that could cover such test flights.

The trouble started Tuesday, when an unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. cargo rocket destined for the international space station exploded roughly 15 seconds after liftoff. Four days later the accident over California, ending with television footage of SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a section of the Mojave Desert, rocked a broader swath of the space community. That’s partly because the Virgin Galactic brand—along with company founder and booster Sir Richard Branson —are recognized by so many people world-wide.

As a result, even some of the staunchest advocates of commercial ventures are maneuvering to highlight the technical distinctions between Virgin Galactic and rival projects. Xcor Aerospace Inc., which is developing a smaller and less expensive rocket ship for space travelers, said in a statement Saturday that its Lynx craft “is a very different vehicle than SpaceShipTwo,” because it takes off from a runway and uses different fuel.

“Unlike some other technologies, the same engine can be reliably used over and over again,” the company said, adding it “will continue to thoroughly test and retest our vehicle and its systems.”

Mr. Branson, for his part, met with Virgin Galactic employees Saturday at the company’s facility near the crash site.

After repeatedly predicting over the years that SpaceShipTwo was on the verge of commercial operations—and each time having to acknowledge more delays, the billionaire entrepreneur on Saturday was considerably more downbeat and guarded in his predictions.

“We’re not going to push on blindly,” Mr. Branson said.

Based on the work of test pilots, he said, “we hope that one day” passengers will be able to go to space safely. But he declined to elaborate.

Ken Brown, a local freelance photographer, said he captured the “in-flight anomaly” that destroyed SpaceShipTwo and described it as some type of explosion.

After SpaceShipTwo separated from the carrier aircraft, “they lit the rocket motor, everything was looking great,” recalled Mr. Brown, who was photographing the test flight from the Jawbone Ranger Station south of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

“It pulled out ahead, it pulled up to go vertical,” he said. About nine seconds into the flight, he saw “a big white puff” and instantly realized “something just went horribly wrong.”

Mr. Brown said he observed the spacecraft flipping upside down in less than a second. “Something happened that caused some sort of instability,” he said Saturday, “just bad getting heaped on bad.”

Mr. Brown and two other people with him heard a bang, which took a while to reach the ground from more than 50,000 feet above the desert floor. “Everything was over at that point; I was just shooting falling debris,” he said.

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