Wall Street Journal Story Adds Details to Virgin Galactic’s Troubles With SpaceShipTwo

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on all the problems Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic have had with SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo over the years. It pretty confirms everything I’ve been writing for the last few years, adding some interesting details but getting a few of them wrong.

There were a number of interesting elements here:

The article claims that Sierra Nevada Corporation was brought in by Scaled Composites to develop SpaceShipTwo’s engine  in 2009. That’s not accurate.

Scaled Composites signed a contract for engine development work with SpaceDev in August 2008. SpaceDev had developed the original engine for SpaceShipOne, but there was a falling out between the company and Scaled Composites. (More accurately, a falling out between Scaled Composites’ Burt Rutan and SpaceDev’s Jim Benson, who once came to blows at a space conference.)

Scaled subsequently embarked on its own rubber hybrid engine program. After a fatal explosion on a test stand killed three engineers in July 2007, Scaled decided to bring SpaceDev into the program.

Sierra Nevada Corporation complete its acquisition off SpaceDev in December 2008. Sierra Nevada worked on SpaceShipTwo’s rubber hybrid motor until earlier this year when Virgin Galactic announced a change to a plastic hybrid motor.

According to the story, SpaceDev said it would take four to six years to design an engine for SpaceShipTwo. Yet, during that period, Virgin officials were constantly reassuring everyone that everything was on track with the engine. I recall doing a story about five years ago for a magazine, and the Virgin people told me all was A-OK with the engine. A short time after filing the story, I discovered it wasn’t.

Sir Richard Branson was also perpetually making optimistic projections during this period about when commercial service would begin, predictions that were significantly at odds with realities in Mojave and Poway.  I’ve become very aware of that gap during the last three years that I have been living in Mojave.

The story also confirms what I reported about SNC’s rubber hybrid not being able to get SpaceShipTwo all the way to space.  The plan was to reduce the passenger load to four. The article says Virgin Galactic told Sierra Nevada it couldn’t make money with that passenger load. This led to the change to the plastic motor and a parting of ways with Sierra Nevada.

What the story doesn’t say is that the addition of wing tanks for methane needed to light the plastic motor added a lot of weight to the ship. So, the passenger load appears to be stuck at four, and it’s not clear exactly how high SpaceShipTwo can fly with the new propulsion system. They’re aiming for 50 miles (the U.S. Air Force boundary of space) and hoping for 62 miles (the international definition.)

The story also slightly distorts an incident that occurred in which a plastic hybrid motor came apart on the test stand. If it’s the incident I’m thinking about, it occurred in May 2013, not earlier this year. (Unless Virgin Galactic destroyed another test stand in 2014, and I just haven’t heard about it.) In any event, I recall that it was about three weeks after the first powered flight in late April 2013.

It is true that they introduced flaws into the motor for the 2013 test. However, the subsequent explosion came as a shock to everyone because it destroyed an expensive test stand and permanently damaged a nitrous tank. Nobody sets out to do that.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    “It’s an enormously sad day for a company,” Burt Rutan told The
    Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Idaho, where he lives since retiring.

    http://www.thestate.com/2014/10/31/3781209/virgin-galactic-spaceship-has.html

    All I have seen.

  • waseem

    Better hop on MiG-29, it will take you to the edge of space, plus you will get enjoy aerobics flying back & definitely lot safer than trying a Virgin, lol.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    Thanks for keeping the torch of history focused in these times. People have hijacked the evolution of aviation and use it to support ventures going in completely different directions. Government money, not individual surplus wealth, made aviation happen.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    Great pick-up line 😉

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    Reading the NTSB comments it seems the cockpit layout was designed for suits. They said, or maybe someone reporting said, the unlock lever was big and central so it could be operated with heavy gloves. I’m just guessing here.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    Knowing a something about aviation regulation, be that US or otherwise, I’m pretty sure you are right.

  • I posted this to an earlier article, but it looks relevant here as well:

    Like many former Virgin Galactic Employees, I have chosen to remain subject to specific perpetual NDA clauses. (Out of VG: More than six months; Area of expertise: rocket propulsion avionics unrelated to those recently flown on SS2; Currently working: in a completely different industry.) However, I can still have, and occasionally choose to express, my personal opinions based on publicly available information:

    I think Mike Alsbury’s actions unlocking the feather system at about Mach 1.0 may have been standard, but possibly undocumented, procedure. While not ideal, it is very common in intense development environments for both procedures and assemblies to evolve beyond official documentation. Public video of prior flights seems to me to support the idea that unlocking the feather system immediately upon attaining Mach 1.0 was de facto standard procedure.

    NTSB representatives publicly stated that unlocking the feather system alone should have been insufficient to activate the feather system and, in their review of the data so far, they have observed no other actions on the chain of events required to activate the feather system. To me that means that, regardless of current general media assumptions about causal procedural error, there must have been some sort of as yet un-publicized failure.

    In speculating about that as yet un-publicized failure, I think potential failure causes might include:

    (1) A simple, but unfortunate, pre-flight or pre-release procedural error where the feather actuation lever may have been pre-set to “actuate” rather than “not actuated”. (While the NTSB public statements did say they observed no movement of that lever during the flight, the NTSB has not stated whether that lever was already in the “actuate” position or already in the “not actuated” position.)

    (2) An error in how the feather actuation system was assembled so that it resulted in an “actuate” command when the lever was in the “not actuated” position or regardless of position. (I have seen no NTSB comments directly pertaining to this idea, though I believe they have spoken a bit about aerodynamic forces potentially prematurely activating an unlocked feather system.)

    (3) A propulsion system event of some sort that damaged the feather system resulting in uncommanded actuation or disintegration of the feather system. (The NTSB has stated that the tanks and the engine were found, intact. This still leaves plenty of (highly speculative) room for plumbing between the tanks and engine to fail in myriad ways that might over pressure the part of the spacecraft containing the engine and result in that compartment and/or the feather system experiencing un-planned disassembly. Has anyone seen post-crash images of this plumbing in the publicly available media?)

    Just like my three numbered thoughts, above, ideas about potential causes of the crash of the VSS Enterprise, without additional concrete data, are pure speculation. I think such speculation is a valuable learning thought process for our collective aerospace engineering community but is unlikely to be considered helpful by VG’s best-in-the-world PR team. Technical candor just isn’t the corporate way, for almost any company, especially if the entire business is at stake. That’s why we have the NTSB and others like them.

  • patb2009

    JATOs are you suggesting big solid rockets or liquid bottles?
    How would that be different from tuning the Hybrid main engine?

  • ‘Just saw Kenneth Brown’s pics at Aviation Week:

    http://aviationweek.com/commercial-aviation/spaceshiptwo-probe-focuses-human-factors-test-procedures

    I’m sorry, but a tight zoom on VSS Enterprise in the photo just before the climb angle increases and before the feather system moved seems, to me, to clearly show an anomalous propulsion system event.

    In another photo on the same page, the clean removal of the cabin and the engine compartment looks, to me, to be consistent with an over pressure event in the (largely still intact) space between the engine and the cabin.

    Of course, my thoughts here are speculative. I hope for the best possible ultimate outcome for VG/TSC/Scaled and for the New Space industry in general.

  • SpaceTech

    I don’t follow the sub orbital stuff very very closely, but I did assume the pilots were at least wearing pressure suits and I was VERY surprised to hear that they were not.
    I don’t know what the planned burn or apogee was for that particular flight, but I would think they were looking at least 60K-70K AGL.
    At those altitudes there is just no room for error regarding cabin atmospherics if you have no pressure suit whether they are breathing oxygen or not. Most people think that you will be OK breathing oxygen at those altitudes, but the fact is the body is incapable of absorbing oxygen under those kinds of partial pressure.

  • Douglas Messier

    If they were to redesign SpaceShipTwo for pressure suits, they would end up with serious expenses and changes. Major changes would be required to the ship, additional weight added…the list goes on.

    Jeff Feige at Orbital Outfitters — which is providing pressure suits for XCOR — says that pressure suits are something you have consider at the beginning of designing a vehicle. They’re not something you can easily retrofit into a ship later on.

  • SpaceTech

    I agree Doug, that was my point in an earlier post.
    So do we know definitively if SS2 was or was not designed for crew pressure suits?

  • twizell

    Thank you for this considered reply. My thoughts are a response to what I think is a currently unfounded view in the press that Mike Alsbury’s actions were causal in the accident. NTSB has not said that, but the press, whether guided or not to this unfounded conclusion has in a number of places suggested it or would lead the reader to conclude it. There are many past incidents where human factors or more baldly what the press calls ‘pilot error’ which is quite different turned out to be a smokescreen until a true technical problem was later revealed.

  • twizell

    Have they altered the pictures on display? When you refer to ‘the photo just before the climb angle increases’ you seem to be describing the first image, but that looks normal.

  • The third photo in the article body. Photo by Kenneth Brown titled ‘…before the climb angle increases…’ Download the jpeg and zoom in. ‘Not much detail, but enough.

  • Vultur

    I thought NTSB was not actually regulatory, and the FAA was under a moratorium preventing them from imposing much of any regulations. This accident *might* change that, but I don’t see that it necessarily *will* – is there any public outcry to push them in that direction?

  • twizell

    Thanks, I see now, there was a problem with my browser before and I didn’t get the images and text correctly displayed. I think it would be hard to deny there are two hotspots visible in the image that can be seen without sophisticated image processing and simple zooming. Applying some image adjustments seems to show smaller hotspots more clearly as well. I think you are right, there is an anomaly there.

  • Matt

    That is very interesting, but we need the exact time at which the the right picture was taken. Are the visible flame the cause or the result of the break-up? Did the start of the break-up began just before flame arise or the flame at first? Can we preclude that the right photo does not show already the disintegration by aerodynamic forces?

  • SpaceTech

    You are correct the NTSB is not a regulatory body but they will provide feed back on the accident to the FAA. The FAA is a regulatory body but does not always make accident recommendation’s into an (AD) Airworthiness Directive.
    I will research more into the certification process as I have some questions on the process of who is watching over the development if anybody.

  • twizell

    Good point, The exif data contains the image shoot times, Left 10:07:32 Right 10:07:33. However we don’t know how those times relate to the other observations, or if we can rely on the cameras clock. Only the photographer will know how accurately it was sync’d up. However I would suggest that if the rocket engine was recovered intact as has been reported that it is less likely that this anomaly was caused by the movement of the feathering mechanism. In the right image the spacecraft looks fairly normal apart from the exhaust anomaly and the attitude/orientation. Given what we know about the hybrid motor and its past behaviours which hypothesis would William of Ockham have us prefer? Did the movement of the feather cause an engine anomaly, or did an engine anomaly create a violent vibration which caused the feather to move.

  • twizell

    Good point, The exif data contains the image shoot times, Left 10:07:32 Right 10:07:33. However we don’t know how those times relate to the other observations, or if we can rely on the cameras clock. Only the photographer will know how accurately it was sync’d up. However I would suggest that if the rocket engine was recovered intact as has been reported that it is less likely that this anomaly was caused by the movement of the feathering mechanism. In the right image the spacecraft looks fairly normal apart from the exhaust anomaly and the attitude/orientation. Did the movement of the feather cause an engine anomaly, or did an engine anomaly create a violent vibration which caused the feather to move.

  • Matt

    I am asking myself, why we do not see in the photo the normal very hot rocket propulsion plume/flame similar to the appearance of the so called hot spot. Did the engine already shut down in the moment in which the photo was taken?

  • the solid rocket JATOS that Air Force used to use for overladen transport aircraft. They burn for like 10 seconds and then jettisoned after they’re spent.

  • twizell

    Be careful how you interpret my processed image, the hot exhaust is hidden on the left. What I did was process the right image to show just the hot spots, then applied the same processing to the left which caused the left image to look cold, it isn’t. Check out the original images on the link above if you want to see.