- Parabolic Arc
- June 7, 2023
Rutan: Pilot Error Most Likely Cause of SpaceShipTwo Crash
The Tribune talks to Burt Rutan about the fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo:
Investigators reportedly believe that the test pilot who died in the crash, 39-year-old Mike Alsbury, may have committed an error by unlocking a lever on the craft’s “feathering system” too early. The system is designed to create drag as the space ship descends. Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted down and suffered injuries.
“We had a fatal accident with a manned spaceship where there was nothing wrong with the spaceship,” Rutan said. “I hope it doesn’t put a damper on things. … This is a blossoming industry.”Rutan said the only thing that makes sense to him about the accident is that during an anxious period, Alsbury may have distractedly performed the task.
“During moments of stress combined with fear, pilots can have a kind of unconscious muscle memory,” Rutan said. “They can do tasks before they’re supposed to. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.”
26 responses to “Rutan: Pilot Error Most Likely Cause of SpaceShipTwo Crash”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
“We had a fatal accident with a manned spaceship where there was nothing
wrong with the spaceship,”
Um. How would he know that ? He didn’t even design and build this one. Getting ahead of the investigation here with these proclamations.
This is what fame and mingling with sirdickbransons will do to any engineer. Beware.
It’s certainly a load off my mind to have burt rutan confirm that virgin galactic’s insistence on making as many of spaceshiptwo’s functions as possible be manually activated as a way to avoid automation-related mishaps hasn’t contributed to any major accidents.
Actually, Burt did design and helped built this one.
“Burt Rutan said that in phasing out of Scaled Composites that he was not the designer of either SpaceShipTwo or WhiteKnightTwo. He said the Jim Tighe designed SpaceShipTwo and Bob Morgan designed WhiteKnightTwo”
Also note that Tighe recently left the company, too.
Thanx for correcting me.
OTOH, apparently Tighe was involved with SS1, and worked closely with Rutan. As such, I think that there is a lot of rutan in this.
The oracle has spoken. It seems he has revolutionized aircraft accident investigation by doing it remotely from his home in Idaho. NTSB can back their bags and head home.
And yet, the man probably has more hours designing and running aircraft than any in the NTSB. In fact, I would not be surprised if he does not have more time in it, than any 3 of the inspectors combined.
So what? Accident investigation and aircraft design are two completely different disciplines.
I’d pick an industrial accident investigator rather than an aircraft designer to do something like this.
Protecting what’s left of their “legacy”? With Musk announcing their drone landing ships and enhancements on the F9 first stage, it seems increasingly that the SpaceShipOne/Two technology and achievement is a technological dead-end, despite their historical and inspirational value.
It always has been, just like the Ryan NYP was basically a dead end in terms of the technology needed to transatlantic flight. So in that aspect it is being true to the Orteig Prize results 🙂
Comparing these 2 is like comparing a Tesla model s to a fiat. Totally different purposes. Totally different means. Totally different costs. Nothing to compare.
I wasn’t trying to compare the technology per say but the promise of easy access to space, looking from the perspective of the past ten years. I remember watching SS1 on a jerky video feed making the final flight to qualify for the X-Prize. At that point in time (2004), Scaled/SS1 held so much promise. Beyond Tier One, we were also vaguely promised orbital capabilities (Tier Three) as part of the entire architecture. At that point, they were non Lockmart, private space company that had the hardware and actually looked like achieving that they set out to promise. Look where are we now.
To be fair, even with the downscaling (or removal? haven’t heard about it recently) of SpaceShipThree, VG is still supposed to build LauncherOne and use WhiteKnightTwo for that. So it isn’t *completely* irrelevant to orbital flight.
But Spaceshipone/Spaceshiptwo were not needed for that path especially given the much different engines and designs involved. Also Orbital Sciences pioneered it years ago. And you may also add in there is no evidence LauncherOne will be using the feathering mechanism that is bragged about as being Spaceshipone’s greatest innovation.
As with many ‘spinoff’ claims the path would be much cheaper and quicker if followed directly.
I think the SS2 model of a carrier aircraft and single use engines is a dead end but sub-orbital hot rods like Xcor lynx will probably have a niche market especially if they can get costs down and do multiple flights per day as is the plan.
A reusable F9 going orbital will still cost more than a suborbital hotrod for joy flights with the added possibility of limited sales for personal use by rich extreme sports fanatics.
Well, at least he waited longer than Diamandis before declaring ‘Pilot Error – Case Closed’.
Nothing really changes for Peter D. No matter what happens, or how bad it is, or how soon after the accident he’s talking, he simply repeats the same talking points.
Immediately after the cold-flow accident in 2007, Diamandis had already reached a conclusion even though the investigation had barely begun and the three dead engineers weren’t even in the ground yet.
Peter Diamandis, founder of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation that awarded SpaceShipOne $10 million, said the accident should not ground the SpaceShipTwo project.
“This was an industrial accident. This has nothing to do with spaceflight,” he said. “I have complete confidence that they are building a safe and robust spaceship.”
Because if he doesn’t keep reminding folks how beautiful the “emperor’s cloths are” than folks may start to recognize that the Ansari-X Prize was a failure that actually derailed and decimated the industry while delaying sub-orbital tourism for years. And if that happens he won’t be able to keep hyping the Google Lunar X-Prize and the X-Prize Foundation as “transformational” when they are nothing but hype.
Also that is why I believe that Sir Richard Branson is still hanging in with Virgin Galactic. If he cuts his loses he would be basically admitting to himself that he was taken in by a hypemeister far greater than he is and his ego will just not permit that.
I’m not convinced it’s fair to say “derailed and decimated”, it might turn out to be far more mundane: the XPrize created a bubble of false demand. How many of those other companies/teams would REALLY still be around if there were no XPrize? I’m betting most just would never have existed.
It’s the same with the Lunar Lander Challenge: after the prize was “won” how many of those companies are offering daily suborbital research flights? Masten’s entire team left and Carmack got so sick of it he’s doing the Occulus Rift 3D glasses.
I remember the late 90s Internet bubble “profit and loss are dead” “the fundamentals are different” “no more recessions in the New Economy” “branding is the only thing that matters” blah blah blah. All gone with PetsDotCom. Turns out the fundamentals are still the ONLY thing that matters: can you sell your product to customers for more than it cost to make it?
All these intriguing “what if’s” surround the prize. What if Rutan had continued flying SpaceShipOne? Or if he had developed a beefed up version of it.
It might have worked, kickstarting space tourism and bringing money to other ventures like XCOR.
Or there might have been a fatal accident resulting from the hybrid rubber engine they were flying. (Chunk of rubber gets stuck in throat, ship goes boom.) Or some disaster stemming from Rutan’s lack of understanding of how dangerous nitrous oxide is. (Explosion on the ramp during spaceship prep that takes out the crew and nearby buildings.)
The celebration last month of the 10th anniversary was a very awkward, dysfunctional family reunion that looks even more uncomfortable now.
I didn’t understand his comments about ‘muscle memory’, but this explained it. https://www.youtube.com/wat…
All just theory without data and a proper investigation, but interesting none the less.
I’m willing to give Mr. Rutan the benefit of the doubt on this one. He has enough experience in the industry designing radical airframes and the resultant familiarity with their testing that he is an authority of what may have gone wrong. My impression is that Mr. Rutan weighs his words carefully so that they won’t be taken out of context, and I think his comments here are no exception. Still, the world of social media and blogs like this one where any armchair “expert” can put his or her two cents in will tend to throw suspicion on and twist the intent of what the true pioneers are trying to accomplish.
I think a significant portion of commenters, here in this blog, are engineers or even aerospace engineers. They might not have the specialized experiences of Mr. Rutan, but are able to think critically and can formulate the right questions. I think this shall be positively recognized and supported.
I agree. Many of the posts are by knowledgeable individuals. Also reading the article I do wonder if Burt Rutan was lead by the reporter into some good “sound bites”.
Design flaw exposed by human error will be fixed by next flight. They just need make a software computer adjustment NOT to allow deployment of Feather until rockets are completely fired, ….THEN it will send command OK to release Lever for Feather deployment.