WSJ: Expert Had Urged SpaceShipTwo Be Grounded Before Fatal Flight

Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The Wall Street Journal‘s Andy Pasztor and Jon Ostrower have a detailed and damning story on Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites on the eve of the National Transportation Safety Board’s meeting about last October’s crash of SpaceShipTwo.

Engineers over the years had complained about excessive risk and questionable flight controls, with one even urging a halt to flight tests and asking regulators to step in. Those alleged problems, however, have no apparent connection with the sequence of events that culminated in the crash, according to government and industry officials. Yet they do underscore what were nagging concerns among some engineers about inadequate safety margins and a haste to fly….

Six months prior to the accident, a flight-control expert and veteran engineer brought in to vet the system urged high-level project managers that SpaceShip Two “be grounded until such time that upgrades are made to comply with FAA…requirements that would head off a potential catastrophic event,” according to a company test report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal….

As part of efforts to accelerate output in the summer of 2013, Joe Brennan, TSC’s director of operations, sought a way to alleviate what he called “concerns and hesitancies” of various engineers to sign off on certain parts, according to a memo reviewed by the Journal. Engineers believed there were safety problems with some parts already in use on an existing prototype, and were uncomfortable vouching for their safety on a second craft, several former engineers said.

Management directed them to sign off on building those parts, though without blessing them for flight, according to the memo….

The push to fly coupled with a lack of federally mandated safety standards hampered redesign of key systems, according to Frank Mayo, a veteran flight-controls engineer, who joined TSC in March 2013.

Mr. Mayo said he flagged his specific concerns to TSC leadership a year later. Testing showed that if the flight controls on either side of the vehicle jammed, both pilots pulling or pushing to free them would likely buckle the healthy side, potentially causing a loss of control, he wrote in an engineering report reviewed by the Journal. As a result, he said he urged the craft be grounded pending a redesign.

Read the whole story. It shows how screwed up the program was, and how any number of things could have brought SpaceShipTwo down either in flight test or commercial service. I had heard about many of these things. None of it really surprises me.

The story doesn’t address a number of key issues. For one, they were flying with a new nylon engine that had been lightly tested on the ground. Second, they were going to use the prototype to fly Richard Branson and commercial customers, a decision that outraged Scaled Composites. Third, they were going to declare the spacecraft operational after only a handful of additional flights. Finally, it wasn’t clear whether they could achieve actual spaceflight (at least 50 miles) with the system they had built.

Beyond all that, the NTSB report could end up demolishing the “safety is our North Star” claim that Virgin Galactic made prior to the crash.

It will be interesting to see what the NTSB says on Tuesday. Virgin seems determined to blame Scaled for the crash. However, if the report criticizes Virgin’s management and practices, I wonder if Branson will make some changes at the top.

With the Virgin Group, Branson is the brand, and the brand is the man. A critical report would not only ding the Virgin brand but cast a harsh light on Branson himself, whether he had anything to do with the problems or not.

The story is behind a paywall, but if you type Virgin Galactic Awaits NTSB Findings into Google and click on the link, you should be able to ready the entire story.