Disaster in the Desert: Tragedy Strikes Virgin Galactic

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

In the second major disaster to strike commercial space in the same week, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke up in the air above the Mojave desert shortly after igniting its new plastic compound based hybrid motor in what would have been its first powered test flight.  According to multiple reports, the pilot ejected escaped, but the co-pilot, who did not, was killed. Our prayers and deepest sympathies go out to all involved.

Witnesses reported that the vehicle “exploded,” and ParabolicArc’s Doug Messier, who was on scene reported he could confirm the fatality.

Here is the FAA statement.

“Just after 10 a.m. PDT today, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft. Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. The FAA is investigating.”

Today’s test was actually performed under the auspices of SpaceShipTwo’s builder, Scaled Composites, which is wholly owned by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. The hybrid motor which at this early point appears to have been the source of the disaster was manufactured by Scaled Composites as well, replacing the previous series of rubber compound based motors built by Sierra Nevada Corporation, which were used in the previous three powered test flights.  According to unofficial reports, the change was made due to combustion instabilities in the original motors. (In the lexicon of the industry, solid and hybrid fueled propulsion systems are referred to as “motors” whereas liquid fueled systems are “engines.”)

Beyond the immediate tragedy and loss of life, the implications for today’s disaster are broad and deep. The commercial industry was already reeling from Tuesday’s loss of the Orbital Sciences Antares booster on a NASA/ISS resupply mission, and the smoke had barely cleared from Wallops pad OA before some very predicable sources began to use the disaster to condemn the commerical space as a whole. Those voices will now become much louder.

The time to combat those claims will come soon enough, but today is not that day. For now it is enough to mourn the loss of life, the damage to a dream, and honor the dedication and courage of everyone involved who is seeking to expand the boundaries of the human experience.

Note: Story updated to reflect the fact that SS2 did not have ejection seats. That anyone survived such a breakup is simply amazing.

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3 Comments on "Disaster in the Desert: Tragedy Strikes Virgin Galactic"

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  1. Zed_WEASEL says:

    There are no ejection seats in Space Ship 2. More likely ejected after the breakup of the vehicle.

    The initial News reports are not very factual or knowledgeable.

  2. Amateur (?) photo of SS2 at altitude, shortly after the explosion, can be found at USA Today:
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/01/virgin-galactic-crash-pilot/18322677/

    Examination of this photo appears to show that this is the rear portion of the fuselage with the feathering portion of wings and booms still attached. Fire seen at front of this piece appears to be a part of the polyamide thermoplastic engine core, now exposed by the fuselage separation. Therefore it appears that the explosion may have originated just forward of the engine core, in the oxidizer tank.

    Condolences to the family of co-pilot Mike Alsbury, now identified as the crewmember killed in the accident.

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