Tag: space tourism

Crashed spaceship pilot unaware co-pilot unlocked brake







Excerpt from AP-LOS ANGELES — The pilot of the Virgin Galactic spaceship that tore apart over the Mojave Desert didn’t know his co-pilot had prematurely unlocked its brakes, though protocol for the test flight required the co-pilot to announce the step, federal investigators said Wednesday.

Pilot Peter Siebold told the National Transportation Safety Board that he was not aware co-pilot Mike Alsbury had pulled a brake-unlocking lever before the rocket designed one day to fly tourists to the edge of space was done accelerating. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo began to disintegrate over Southern California.

Protocol for the flight was to announce the unlocking, an agency spokesman said.

It is not clear if Siebold didn’t hear Alsbury or the co-pilot never indicated he was taking the action. The safety board plans to analyze flight audio next week, spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Virgin Galactic and said it could not comment on the investigation and referred questions to the NTSB. Siebold has not spoken publicly.

Pilots and co-pilots typically agree in advance before making important decisions, said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former space shuttle astronaut who now consults on commercial space flight. One method is a “challenge and response” system in which one voices an intended action and the other confirms it before the action is taken.

Lopez-Alegria said he did not know whether the unlocking of SpaceShipTwo’s brakes was considered critical enough to require agreement, but “you would never take that action on your own.” He noted that in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, the pilot and co-pilot call out and confirm an action as routine as raising the wheels after takeoff.

The Oct. 31 crash about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles killed Alsbury, injured Siebold and cast a shadow over the immediate future of space tourism. It could take a year for the NTSB to determine the cause, though Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said last week the company wants to resume test flights as early as next summer with a replacement craft.

The eventual goal is to launch spaceships carrying six passengers from a spaceport in New Mexico. For their $250,000 ticket, passengers would get a fleeting feeling of weightlessness and a spectacular view of Earth from about 62 miles up.

Pilot Siebold was hospitalized after the crash, but when he spoke to investigators Friday he had been discharged.

He told them that he was flung from the vehicle when it disintegrated. He said he unbuckled from his seat at some point during his fall that began miles above Earth, and his parachute deployed automatically.

Investigators have not revealed the exact altitude of the breakup, but previous SpaceShipTwo test flights peaked at about 10 miles, much lower than the height expected for commercial flights.

Co-pilot Alsbury could be seen on inflight video unlocking the system before the vehicle had reached Mach 1.0, Hart has said. The feathers aren’t supposed to be unlocked until the craft reaches Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000 mph. At that point, it would have reached an altitude where the thinner air would not have provided so much violent resistance.

Even after Alsbury unlocked them, the feathers were not supposed to move. For that to happen, the crew would pull a second lever. The crew didn’t take the second step, but the system engaged anyway. Two or three seconds later, the craft began to break apart.

The NTSB has said the feathers could have deployed because of aerodynamic forces on the craft. The agency said Wednesday that it is looking at those forces and reviewing safety documentation and the feather system’s design.
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Associated Press writers Brian Melley and John Antczak contributed to this report.

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Safety Board Cites Improper Pilot Command in Virgin Galactic Crash



Excerpt from

wsj.com By Andy Pasztor


Accident Sets Back Ambitious Timetables for Space Tourism and Other Commercial Ventures.

MOJAVE, Calif.—An improper co-pilot command preceded Friday’s in-flight breakup of Virgin Galactic LLC’s rocket, according to investigators, when movable tail surfaces deployed prematurely.

Two seconds after the surfaces moved—with SpaceShip Two traveling faster than the speed of sound—“we saw disintegration” of the 60-foot-long experimental craft, according to Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The co-pilot died in the accident, and the other pilot was severely injured.

The sequence of events released by the NTSB indicates that the rocket ship separated normally from its carrier and the propulsion system worked normally until the tail surfaces, called feathers, deployed.

The disaster, coupled with the explosion earlier last week of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. cargo rocket destined for the international space station, has set back the ambitious timetables embraced by space-tourism proponents and other commercial ventures seeking to get beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Some in the industry predict difficulties obtaining additional private-equity funding for startup ventures, while others worry about nagging propulsion problems and public confidence. 

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

Virgin Galactic had initially hoped to start commercial service by 2008, but persistent development and testing challenges have repeatedly pushed back the date. Before the accident, company officials were talking about inaugurating service by early 2015, with company founder Sir Richard Branson and members of his family slated to take the first ride. Now, the initial launch date is uncertain because the probe is likely to stretch for many months.

How much the fledgling industry is set back may depend on what investigators determine caused the two accidents. Some industry officials and analysts predict that 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.” 

Earlier Sunday, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, defended the company’s safety procedures and indicated that the rocket motor on the craft that crashed was a derivative of a design that had been successfully tested on the ground and in the air for years.

“At the end of the day, safety of our system is paramount,” he said in an interview. “The engineers and the flight-test team have the final authority” to determine when and how experimental flights are conducted.

Virgin Galactic has pledged to cooperate fully with the probe, which also includes experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman Corp. unit that designed and is testing the Virgin crafts—SpaceShip Two and its carrier aircraft, dubbed WhiteKnight Two. The pilots on Friday’s test flight were Scaled Composites employees.

Mr. Whitesides, a former senior NASA official, is in charge of the roughly $500 million project intended to take passengers on suborbital flights for more than $200,000 each. He said last week’s test flight wasn’t rushed. “I strongly reject any assertion that something pushed us to fly when we weren’t ready,” he said.

SpaceShip Two’s fuel tanks and engine were recovered largely intact. The hybrid motor fueled by nitrous oxide and a plastic-based compound was found some 5 miles from where large sections of the tail first hit the ground. Sections of the fuselage, fuel tanks and cockpit were located some distance from the engine itself.

The condition and location of various pieces of the wreckage suggest there was no propulsion-system explosion before the craft started coming apart miles above California’s Mojave Desert, according to air-safety experts who have reviewed the images.

“It’s hard to figure how an engine explosion” could produce such a debris field, said John Cox, an industry consultant and former accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association.

The rocket ship was equipped with six onboard video cameras and many sensors feeding data to the ground. The flight also was followed by radar, and was filmed from the ground and by a plane flying close by.

SpaceShip Two’s rocket motor received considerable attention immediately after the accident. Industry officials and news reports concentrated on the fact that it was burning a new type of plastic-based fuel for the first time in flight.

The new engine-fuel combination was tested on the ground about a dozen times in the months leading up to Friday’s flight.

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