Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 3 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

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.
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Dodging Disaster: A Fire, the North Star and the Mojave Code

Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Fire outside of The Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port on June 5, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

MOJAVE, Calif. – Luke Colby was horrified.

A fire had erupted outside the old Derringer hangar. Pallets of rubber fuel grain were burning, sending a thick cloud of black smoke into the blue sky over the Mojave Air and Space Port. Firefighters from Kern County Fire Station 14 were doing their best to put out the fire by spraying it down with water.

It seemed like the logical thing to do. And it would have been, if the fire had been located almost anywhere else.

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Update on the Fire at the Mojave Spaceport

Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Some additional intel on that fire at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Thursday evening.

The fire occurred next to a large, stationary nitrous oxide storage tank that provides the oxidizer for SpaceShipTwo flights. There also was a tractor trailer marked nitrous oxide parked beside the stationary tank at the time of the fire. Firefighters sprayed down these tanks to keep them cool while others put out the fire.

It is not clear what the capacities of the storage tank and trailer are, or how much nitrous oxide they contained at the time of the fire. However, fears that the tanks could breach and cause a major conflagration resulted in an evacuation of the airport around the site. This reason was explicitly mentioned by the security officer who told me and others to evacuate the area we were in at the time.

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