Monday, August 01, 2016

Federal Aviation Administration Grants Virgin Galactic Approval to Resume Testing Rocket Plane: Regulatory action follows fatal 2014 test flight that raised questions about commercial space ventures

Richard Branson posed in front of Virgin Galactic LLC's updated SpaceShip Two rocket plane after it was unveiled in February.

The Wall Street Journal
Aug. 1, 2016 5:48 p.m. ET

Richard Branson’s space-tourism company said it has received federal approval to resume testing its rocket plane following a 2014 fatal test flight and, if those flights go smoothly, to eventually start carrying passengers to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic LLC on Monday announced the authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration came some 20 months after pilot error resulted in a high-profile crash that rocked the company and raised questions about the future of commercial ventures in space. The accident involving the craft, called SpaceShip Two, also sparked industry and Capitol Hill debate about the appropriate level of federal oversight of the budding space-tourism industry.

Approval of the operating license is an important step for Virgin Galactic to regain momentum, in the wake of the October 2014 accident near Mojave, Calif., that injured the craft’s commander, killed the second pilot on board and prompted the company to reassess overall safety procedures.

In a news release, the closely held company said the agency’s decision was the “culmination of several years of in-depth interaction with the FAA,” including detailed reviews covering “the vehicle’s system design, safety analysis and flight trajectory analysis.” Renamed Unity, the rocket plane conducted its first ground tests Monday.

An FAA spokesman said the license “contains certain terms and conditions” the company is required to meet before it can undertake commercial operations and “carry space flight participants.”

Virgin Galactic didn’t say how long the entire flight test program is likely to take, but industry officials expect it to last at several months and probably longer.

Ultimately, company officials have talked about having a fleet of rocket ships, able to launch frequently on a set schedule from airborne aircraft, but then return to land on a conventional runway and a specially outfitted terminal built in New Mexico.

Such thrill rides would allow passengers, hundreds of whom have already plunked down $250,000 deposits, to briefly experience weightlessness and see the Earth from outside the atmosphere.

Federal crash investigators determined inadequate design safeguards, lax regulatory supervision and mistakes by an anxious co-pilot led to the 2014 crash of SpaceShip Two. The craft broke apart as it was approaching the sound barrier nearly 10 miles high, after the co-pilot, who investigators determined lacked recent flight experience, prematurely unlocked a movable tail section.

Fallout from the crash and subsequent investigation prompted Virgin Galactic to redesign that part on the vehicle to preclude a repeat of the error. The company also reassessed its overall safety initiatives, partly by paying more attention to pilot training, enhanced crew coordination and other human factors.

Despite heightened public attention to the accident and a continuing upsurge in investments in an array of commercial space ventures, lawmakers have opted to maintain a largely hands-off regulatory system. FAA managers are charged with protecting the safety of people and structures on the ground. But past and current legislation explicitly precludes them from closely regulating the design or conducting detailed assessments of the risks faced by space tourists.

That prohibition is scheduled to last well into the next decade, with proponents arguing that such a “learning period” free of prescriptive government rules is essential for the nascent industry to thrive and try out innovative technologies.

Mike Moses, the company’s senior vice president of operations, said that “while we still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight, I am confident that our world-class team is up to the challenge.”

Long before the 2014 crash, Virgin Galactic faced huge technical and organizational challenges. Mr. Branson initially predicted his company would start flying paying passengers as early as 2007.

The FAA’s action marks another kind of milestone for Virgin Galactic. In the past, all airborne tests were conducted under test-flight authorizations that couldn’t be directly converted into commercial-operating licenses.

Original article can be found here:

NTSB Identification: DCA15MA019
Nonscheduled 14 CFR Part 437: Commercial Space Flight
Accident occurred Friday, October 31, 2014 in Koehn Dry Lake, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 08/05/2015
Aircraft: SCALED COMPOSITES 339, registration: N339SS
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Serious.

NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aerospace accident report. 
The Safety Board's full report is available at The Aerospace Accident Report number is NTSB/AAR-15/02.

On October 31, 2014, at 1007:32 Pacific daylight time, the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) reusable suborbital rocket, N339SS, operated by Scaled Composites LLC (Scaled), broke up into multiple pieces during a rocket-powered test flight and impacted terrain over a 5-mile area near Koehn Dry Lake, California. The pilot received serious injuries, and the copilot received fatal injuries. SS2 was destroyed, and no one on the ground was injured as a result of the falling debris. SS2 had been released from its launch vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), N348MS, about 13 seconds before the structural breakup. Scaled was operating SS2 under an experimental permit issued by the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) according to the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 437.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
Scaled Composites' failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot's premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle.

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