Part 3 of 3
by Douglas Messier
On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.
The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.
We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.
We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust.
It was only then that the photographs really began to make sense. We had strong hints that the engine had not been the cause in the hours after the accident, but we had still been in the dark about what had brought down the ship.
We hadn’t known that the feather had to be unlocked with the engine still firing. Due to a NTSB gag order imposed on Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, nobody was talking in the days that followed the crash.
In his new autobiography, Richard Branson makes much of this mistake and other erroneous press reports during that two-day blackout period. In fact, he spends the better part of six pages venting about how unfair the coverage was to Virgin Galactic in the days following the loss of SpaceShipTwo.
“Most galling was the attempt by some in the press to cast doubt on Virgin Galactic’s absolute commitment to safety,” he writes, ignoring the fact that his space company had significantly shortened the flight test program. (See part 2 of this series, A Bad Day at Koehn Lake)
Branson has legitimate complaints. The initial reports were erroneous, as they often are in fast-moving events like this one. I made a mistake – an honest one. And I have felt badly about that ever since. But, I wasn’t alone in thinking an explosion had occurred.
I think we might have realized our mistake if we had been able to reach more of SpaceShipTwo’s wreckage that morning. The road leading to the largest piece, which we had tracked down to the ground, was blocked by road construction.
We took a detour only to be blocked again by the wreckage of the spaceship’s cockpit, which had slammed into the side of the road with Alsbury’s body still strapped in its seat. It was a grisly scene I will never forget.
Branson’s focus on the press is excessive given the enormity of what happened that day. Even if we had gotten it right from the start, that wasn’t going to bring back Alsbury, put SpaceShipDumpty back together again, or erase the fact that Branson’s little space program had claimed its fourth victim in 10 years without getting anywhere near its intended destination.
Alsbury had made a much more serious mistake, one that cost him his life. I felt a helluva lot worse for him, his wife and children, and all of his relations, friends and colleagues. Alsbury was a good man who was much loved and respected by those who knew him. His loss was deeply felt within the small Mojave aerospace community.
Not that Branson devotes much time to that. It’s only after he spends six pages attacking the press that he addresses the human tragedy involved. The billionaire spends three fairly generic paragraphs – less than a page – talking about the brave pilot who had died testing his space plane.
Branson didn’t really know Alsbury well, although they met at least once when the billionaire congratulated him and Mark Stucky following SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight. So, there would be an understandable shortage of stories to recount about their personal interactions.
Even so, Branson could have included something – a story someone told about Alsbury at the memorial service, an anecdote from a friend or family member – to give readers a sense of who the man was and the legacy he left behind.
We do find out that Branson has a short meeting with Alsbury’s family at the memorial service. For whatever reason, we learn nothing of what was said; we don’t even learn the names of the pilot’s widow and two children.
Perhaps this is to protect their privacy. But, the whole section comes off as a bit cold.
Pilot Error, Neither Pure Nor Simple
When I wrote earlier that the six pages of press criticism seemed excessive, there’s one reason that I did not mention. That passage is about six pages more than Branson devotes to criticizing anyone who bore any actual responsibility for the fatal flight. The lone exception, of course, being Alsbury.
Branson boils the crash down to two words: pilot error. That’s it. No other contributing factors. No larger problems with the program, with safety practices or with government oversight. Nothing. The co-pilot just made a mistake.
This is not what the NTSB found. The safety board determined the probable cause of the accident was
Scaled Composite’s failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced.
This wasn’t simply pilot error. It was a failure of imagination that reflected a flawed safety culture. Scaled hadn’t considered everything that could go wrong and mitigated for these possibilities. It had shown too much confidence in its pilots, and hadn’t trained them sufficiently in the dangers of unlocking the feather prematurely.
It wasn’t the first time that a lack of due diligence on safety had proven fatal in the SpaceShipTwo program. The first had occurred seven years earlier when a tank full of nitrous oxide that everyone considered perfectly safe exploded without warning during a test, killing three Scaled engineers who hadn’t cleared the area around the test stand.
SpaceShipTwo Enterprise was essentially a hand-flown ship. There were no sophisticated computers or auto pilot to assist the crew. A FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) safety expert told the NTSB that the workload that Alsbury and Pete Seibold experienced on the flight was the highest he had ever seen for any pilots in any vehicle.
This official – and other safety experts who had come over to FAA AST after NASA’s space shuttle program ended – knew that even experienced astronauts made mistakes. The shuttle’s systems, procedures and training were designed to prevent any single human error from bringing down the ship during ascent.
In 135 shuttle flights, pilot error never caused a fatal accident. The same was true for all of NASA’s crewed space missions going all the way back to Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961.
So, why did Scaled assume that their pilots would never make a mistake? And why didn’t FAA AST’s safety experts catch the error and require the company to address pilot error?
It turns out they had caught the problem, but they couldn’t convince management to do anything about it.
Dueling Mandates & Outside Pressure
In 2012, Scaled Composites submitted an application to FAA AST for an experimental permit to begin SpaceShipTwo powered flights. The documentation included a systems safety analysis (SSA) that detailed potential failures and how the company would address them.
The SSA was evaluated by an official without a lot of safety experience who concluded the analysis as meeting statutory requirements. FAA AST issued a renewable, one-year experimental permit in May 2012. Scaled began flight powered tests the following April.
In the year that followed the permit approval, some of the office’s more experienced safety experts reviewed the SSA and concluded it didn’t really meet the standards laid out in the regulations for a piloted space vehicle.
The safety experts wanted Scaled Composites to redo the analysis for review before the permit was renewed. The main drawback was that this would have delayed flight testing in a program that was already running years behind schedule and had already cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
In deciding what to do, FAA AST’s management had to balance several competing priorities. For one, the office has a dual mandate to oversee the safety of these flights while at the same time promoting the nascent commercial human spaceflight industry.
The office’s safety oversight is also limited. It was not focused on protecting the pilots involved in the tests or ensuring mission success. FAA AST also cannot write safety regulations to protect passengers on commercial space vehicles until after there is an accident or close call.
Instead, FAA AST is limited to protecting the “un-involoved public.” Examples include preventing people on the ground from getting hit by debris if a spacecraft crashes, and making sure a vehicle that explodes while being fueled at a spaceport didn’t hurt anyone not involved in the operation.
Officials within the office were split about whether it was really necessary for Scaled to redo the analysis. Some felt it was sufficient as it had been originally submitted. There were concerns about the fairness of making Scaled resubmit something FAA AST had originally approved.
FAA AST safety experts later told NTSB investigators that there was a lot of political pressure to approve tests and permits in order to keep programs on schedule. This pressure was not limited to Scaled and SpaceShipTwo, but it was across the board.
After an internal debate, FAA AST management decided the analysis complied with the statute’s requirements even if it didn’t meet the exact letter of the law. The permit was renewed in May 2013 and renewed again the following year.
Two months later after the first renewal, the office issued a safety waiver signed by FAA AST Associate Administrator George Nield exempting Scaled from the requirements concerning pilot error and software error. The waiver listed a number of mitigating actions the company was taking during powered flights to protect the un-involved public if an accident occurred.
Fifteen months after the waiver was issued, SpaceShipTwo was brought down by pilot error that Scaled hadn’t properly evaluated. The mitigation efforts mentioned in the waiver came very close to not protecting a pair of truck drivers on the ground who barely missed getting hit by cockpit debris with Alsbury’s body.
A Selected Retelling
Branson mentions none of this in his book. He doesn’t criticize Scaled for its poor safety analysis. Or for not training the pilots properly.
He doesn’t blame the FAA AST for accepting the flawed analysis. Or for failing to correct its mistake once safety experts pointed it out. Or for issuing a safety waiver for pilot error for a hand-flown spacecraft.
He also absolves his own company of any blame. “We’ve been crucified [in the press] in the last few days for an accident that wasn’t our fault,” Branson tells Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides after the accident.
When the nitrous oxide tank exploded in 2007, Virgin Galactic had no in-house expertise to check up on what Scaled was doing; it was primarily a marketing and sales operation at that point. By the time powered flights began, the company had hired hundreds of engineers who were in the process of building a second SpaceShipTwo.
Why did Virgin let Scaled get away with such a poor safety analysis? Was it comfortable conducting tests under the FAA AST ‘s waiver? What sort of pressure did it apply on Scaled and FAA AST to keep the program on track? Who thought that beginning commercial service after only six powered flights constituted an “absolute commitment to safety”?
Branson provides no answers to these questions.
The Unspoken Truth
As history, autobiographies can be extremely unreliable. In retelling the story of his life, the author is more liable than not to paint his actions in the best possible light while spinning or ignoring altogether anything that reflects badly on him or doesn’t fit the narrative.
That is certainly true here.That doesn’t mean the book is uninteresting, just incomplete.
The author recounts star-studded dedications of the runway and Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America. His first-hand accounts of the hair-raising flights of SpaceShipOne are exciting. You can feel his excitement as he watches SpaceShipTwo light its engine for the first time. And he waxes eloquently about his historic mission to open space up to the masses and why it must continue despite the tragedies.
But, for the really dramatic moments, when horrendous accidents put good men in their graves and left the program on the edge of ruin, Branson’s account is far more interesting for what it leaves out than for what it reveals. Ever the promoter, he has created a portrait of his space program that he wants us to see, not the one that exists.
It’s all to protect the Virgin brand. And, when the brand is the man and the man is brand, as is the case with Branson and Virgin, that becomes an exercise and personal and professional self preservation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a very good book.
Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake