Serious questions about both the safety of the crew and passengers arise from the revelation that the crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo was caused when one of the test pilots unlocked a device not intended to be deployed until much later in the flight. The device was part of a system unique to the spacecraft called “feathering” in which control surfaces are deflected to brake ascent minutes after the rocket engine closes down and descent begins—the effect has been compared with that of badminton shuttlecock.
I have discussed this with the former astronaut who correctly predicted for The Daily Beast that the cause of the crash seemed not to be the rocket engine. He agreed to discuss this, and other issues, on the basis that his comments would not be attributed to him for professional reasons.
First, I asked about the action taken by the co-pilot that led to the break-up of the vehicle.
“This is curious—why would the crew manually unlock the feathering so early, and only moments after the start of a critical event? And then having done that why did it actually feather, when apparently no crew command was given. There should have been a safeguard against that. This is a critical system that leaves you one failure away from catastrophe, as in this case. So those questions will need to be answered.”
The pilots had to evacuate the craft in extremely dangerous and hostile conditions—with it traveling at very high speed, into very cold and thin air. The survival of one of the pilots is remarkable, and the former astronaut says: “I don’t believe there was anything like an ejection pod in the Galactic aircraft. The crew wear parachutes and surviving vehicle breakup would then be a matter of chance as to whether or not you get thrown free.
“A single indestructible pressure vessel that is strong enough to survive a vehicle breakup event, and then descend automatically under its own large parachute would seem to be a viable approach. But that would require a major vehicle redesign and would carry a significant mass penalty that would hurt performance.
“The occupant safety being offered by Virgin Galactic is very reminiscent of the early days of the shuttle program. The first shuttle flights with two crew members used ejection seats and full pressure suits. But once larger crews flew, ejection was no longer possible.
“Crews only wore cotton flight suits and a helmet similar to that of a motor biker. No high altitude bailout protection was offered. It was not until after the Challenger accident that the folly of this approach was realized. The risks had been vastly underestimated. After Challenger all crews flew with full pressure suits and parachutes, and even then that did not help protect for very high and fast vehicle breakup as we saw with Columbia.”
And what of the six passengers in the cabin behind the crew?
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