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What Scaled, Virgin & Peter Diamandis Said After Last Fatal SpaceShipTwo Program Accident

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 4, 2014
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Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

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

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The crash of SpaceShipTwo and the tragic loss of Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury were stark reminders that despite all the promises about the safety of new space tourism vehicles, space travel is a dangerous business where death can come in seconds.

If outsiders were stunned by the tragedy, it had a sickeningly familiar feel to long-time Mojave denizens. Mike Alsbury was not the first Scaled employee to die developing SpaceShipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline. He was the fourth. Three engineers preceded him seven years earlier in a horrific accident at the Mojave spaceport.

The  2007 tragedy was quite different from the one that occurred over Jawbone Canyon on Halloween. The response to it was both different and eerily familiar.

On the hot summer afternoon of July 26, 2007, Scaled Composites engineers prepared to conduct a cold-flow test of nitrous oxide, the oxidizer that would be used for SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rubber motor. The goal of the test was to see how the nitrous flowed through the engine. The test was characterized as a cold flow because it would not ignite any fuel.

Seventeen people were present in the test area that afternoon. The five people controlling the test were at a mobile control unit located safely behind an earthen berm about 430 feet from the test stand. However, the area around the stand wasn’t clear; 11 workers were standing around a chain-link fence near the test rig to observe the 15-second cold flow.

Remains of Scaled Composites test stand after a nitrous oxide explosion in July 2007.

Remains of Scaled Composites test stand after a nitrous oxide explosion in July 2007.

Three seconds into the test, the nitrous oxide tank exploded. Three Scaled Composites engineers — Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Glenn May — were killed, and three others — Keith Fritsinger, Yevgeny Gisin and Jason Kramb — were hospitalized with critical injuries.

In a subsequent press conference, Scaled Founder Burt Rutan said he was completely stunned by the explosion. “We just don’t know,” Rutan said when asked what caused the accident.

“We felt it was completely safe. We had done a lot of these [tests] with SpaceShip One,” Rutan said, adding that nitrous oxide was usually “not considered a hazardous material.”


Burt Rutan

Scaled Composites would later claim in a statement that “the body of knowledge about nitrous oxide (N2O) used as a rocket motor oxidizer did not indicate to us even the possibility of such an event.”

That claim has been strongly disputed by an outside group of experts that examined the accident. Their report on the incident raised serious questions about whether Rutan really understood the dangers of the hybrid engine at the heart of the space plane he was building for Branson.

“This would seem to indicate either a lack of due-diligence in researching the hazards surrounding N2O (negligence) or a wilful disregard of the truth,” the group concluded in response to Scaled’s claim.

The explosion was a terrible shock to Scaled, which had never lost anyone before on the ground or in the air. The company mourned its dead, held a private ceremony for them, and set up relief funds for their families, just as it would later do for Alsbury’s wife and two children. A year later, a memorial to the three men was unveiled in Mojave’s Legacy Park.

There are some significant differences between 2007 and 2014. While the SpaceShipTwo crash played out live in the full glare of a media spotlight with live Twitter updates, the nitrous oxide explosion happened on a secluded test stand. Alsbury was hailed as an American hero who died pushing the frontiers of high-speed flight like so many other test pilots had in the past in the skies over the Mojave.

By contrast, Scaled characterized the 2007 accident as an industrial accident. This was true in that the explosion took place on the test stand, not in the sky. And Cal/OSHA — the government agency that investigates workplace accidents — was in charge of the investigation, not the National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB).

The industrial accident language found its way into a brief press release about the accident issued by Scaled Composites partner, Virgin Galactic.

Scaled Composites report that during a routine cold flow Nitrous Oxide test, an explosion occurred which tragically killed three of their employees. It is confirmed that the investigation will be carried out by the California Occupational Safety & Health Administration as an industrial accident. Virgin Galactic sends its deepest sympathies to all those involved and reiterates its commitment to the project and technology.

It was all rather perfunctory. Our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and colleagues of the dead — whoever they were. No names given. No mention of the three engineers who lay critically injured in the hospital. Not a word of sympathy from the eminently quotable Branson.

It’s possible the statement was issued before the names of the dead and injured were released. However, there appears to have been no update to the statement, nor any subsequent press releases issued about the accident. In short, it was an industrial accident at Scaled that had little to do with Virgin Galactic. That was very different from the reaction to Alsbury’s death.


Peter Diamandis

If Virgin Galactic’s statement lacked feeling, Peter Diamandis managed to take the industrial accident theme to an even colder level.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation that awarded SpaceShipOne $10 million, said the tragedy 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.”

This was a thoroughly ill-informed statement. And it was shocking to hear it from Diamandis, whose $10 million Ansari X Prize had led to SpaceShipOne and helped to make space tourism a credible idea.

For one, neither Rutan nor Cal/OSHA had determined what had gone wrong yet. So, any conclusions were premature. Diamandis wasn’t involved in the engine program, so anything he said wouldn’t have been very well informed.

Second, a cold-flow test of the oxidizer they were going to use in the hybrid engine had everything to do with spaceflight. The whole reason they did the test was to find out how the nitrous oxide performed. It failed. And that had serious implications for the SpaceShipTwo program.

Blackwell, Ivens and May did die advancing the cause of manned spaceflight. However, Diamandis’ formulation denied them of the benefit of that honor. They might as well have died in an oil refinery accident. Or gotten run over by a truck.

In the end, Diamandis really wasn’t critiquing the accident; he was shilling for Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. He had a good reason to do so. SpaceShipTwo was the only vehicle to come out of the Ansari X Prize.  If the program fails, the entire effort will look like a curious historical footnote. And Diamandis’ reputation would be significantly diminished.

Jumping forward seven years, we find both similarities and differences in the ways that Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic and Diamandis reacted after SpaceShipTwo crashed.

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)

Rather than distancing himself from this second tragedy, Branson immediately jumped into his private jet and flew to Mojave from his Necker Island home. That made sense: the ship had been destroyed, a pilot was dead, and the program was in crisis. Scenes of devastation were all over the airwaves and the Internet. This was a much higher profile accident.

Mike Alsbury

Mike Alsbury

Even as he was rushing to take charge of the situation in Mojave, Branson was also seeking to distance Virgin Galactic from its partner in Mojave. The company put out a press release pointedly referring to the accident as having been a Scaled Composites flight test.

This claim was counter to how it has described earlier flight tests as joint efforts between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. It also was not true; Virgin Galactic was deeply involved in the fatal flight test.

Once Branson was on the ground, he proceeded to make a series of claims that raised serious questions about his credibility and basic grasp of what Virgin Galactic and Scaled are doing in Mojave.

His claim the companies were carrying out the “biggest test program…in commercial aviation history” was not even remotely true. It was shocking coming from the owner of multiple airlines whose planes are much more thoroughly tested than SpaceShipTwo ever would be under the FAA’s much looser regulations for commercial space vehicles.

Branson also said he had never met Alsbury. This was demonstrably untrue. Alsbury had been co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in 2013, a test that Branson had witnessed personally. He had congratulated the pilots after the flight. There were witnesses and pictures.

Branson later backed off the claim. It remains a mystery as to why he made it in the first place. Perhaps it was the stress associated with the accident coupled with sleep deprivation. Or was it some form of distancing mechanism?

Thanks to Twitter, we can better track Diamandis’ reaction to and claims about the SpaceShipTwo accident. He began by expressing deep sympathies for the families, friends and colleagues of the pilots. Then  he discussed the perils of frontiers and the inevitable loss of life in opening them.

At the same time, he was back to shilling for Virgin Galactic, reassuring everyone that SpaceShipTwo would be perfectly safe to fly on.

That’s a bit of a mixed message there. Pioneering the space frontier was dangerous. But, somehow Virgin Galactic would be perfectly safe? That doesn’t make any sense unless one assumed all the accidents would occur during the flight test program. That never happens.

Diamandis also apparently had not been looking closely at SpaceShipTwo flight test schedule. The plan had been to fly the vehicle as few as five times with a brand new engine before putting Branson and his son, Sam, aboard for the inaugural commercial flight. That would have been a very compressed flight test program.

After the NTSB reported that Alsbury had unlocked the feather early and that there were no obvious signs of engine problems with SpaceShipTwo, Diamandis had the following to say.

The Tweet came off as insensitive. Worse, it went beyond what the NTSB had stated. It was far too early in the investigation to conclude that the engine, which had fired for only 10 seconds, had performed “perfectly”. Nor could anyone say at the point that SpaceShipTwo would require no design changes.

Despite spending years promoting commercial spaceflight, Diamandis seemed to have little grasp of the technology involved or what is required to properly flight test it. Or he simply wasn’t letting those realities get in the way of promoting the industry and supporting Virgin Galactic.

And that is a shame. The loss of SpaceShipTwo and Mike Alsbury — the second tragedy to hit this program — should have been a wake up call for a much more sober discussion of the risks that future space tourists will face. Space is difficult — and dangerous. If we try to pretend otherwise, we’re going to be constantly surprised when tragedy occurs.

16 responses to “What Scaled, Virgin & Peter Diamandis Said After Last Fatal SpaceShipTwo Program Accident”

  1. James Hutton says:

    Doug, thank you for the constantly well thought out, clear headed evaluations of whats really going on. I feel like, as soon as someone is trying to get into space, everyone goes all starry eyed and starts waxing poetic about ‘human destiny’ and rational, practical thought just goes right out the door. To say nothing of Branson’s epic marketing bubble. Thank you for keeping your feet on the ground, and continually asking the hard, but necessary questions.

  2. disqus_bramcan says:

    How should it be sold? An exciting but really dangerous experience. Wouldn’t that be saying the test program was okayish? Doug hw do you think this enterprise be best sold. Is it saleable?

  3. Abdul M. Ismail says:

    I never paid much attention to the 2007 accident but when I just read the Scaled 2008 statement about the explosion, I was astounded.

    Nitrous Oxide (N2O) isn’t just an oxidiser for a propellant. It’s also a monopropellant which can ignite when it comes in contact with a catalyst and the latter can be a number of factors which should have been the focus of the investigation.

    Anyone who’s anyone in the propulsion industry should know this which makes me wonder; what are the qualifications of those in charge of this program?

    • Douglas Messier says:

      Yep. You nailed it. Very dangerous, very tricky to work with.

      The body of knowledge on nitrous oxide was clear at the time. There was a tremendous nitrous oxide explosion in Eindhoven back in 2001. Different circumstances, but similar results. A tanker truck blew up while it was transferring fuel from a stationary tank due to overheating; the driver was saved because he had violated safety protocols and left the area during the filling process.

      • Matt says:

        Yes, the hazards must be well known by the developer of the SS1/SS2 hybrid rocket system. I for myself did know it many years before the 2007 accident. That the gaseous phase of N2O can explosively decompose is known for decades widely in the propulsion scene. I think that also Burt Rutan must have had this “body of knowledge” before 2007.

        • Douglas Messier says:

          Rutan decided he didn’t need Jim Benson and SpaceDev for the SpaceShipTwo motor. He brought development in house. It was a fatal mistake.

          As for Rutan and his team knew and didn’t know….that’s a very interesting question.

          • Matt says:

            I assume that he knew it, but he decided to keep the N2O, because the switch to LOX (the only other feasible oxidizer alternative) would had mean a significant (more or
            less a nearly complete) redesign of the vehicle and its propulsion system. Potentially, such the new large HTPB hybrid motor fed by LOX would tend to be even more instable as the N2O motor. However, the full stop and switch to a
            liquid rocket propulsion system was also not wanted.

  4. Jason Kramb says:

    Doug, unlike other commenters, I’m sick and tired of the pushing of agendas that try to link very technical engineering issues with marketing and press release language, *especially* when my name (which you didn’t get right) is used in the process. As Scott Adams and Dilbert have satirized many times over the years, there rarely is a overlapping message between marketing and engineering. This is nothing new, or relevant, or even a “hard question.”

    The technical people involved in these endeavors and the tests that are a necessary part of development are professionals in every sense of the word and know that space is hard. Flight test is hard. There are no shortcuts, no simplifications, and no assumptions, especially when it is your close friends that are involved in those tests.

    I find it amusing that you constantly reference a report by “outside experts” that tries to make conclusions but is full of assumptions “supported” by statements that admit little actual knowledge of the details of the test. Good engineering is entirely in the details, and trying to come to specific conclusions while speculating on those details is not a “dispute” of the engineering. It’s really just more speculation.

    While I left Scaled a number of years ago, I still have many friends
    there that I hold in extremely high regard for their technical
    abilities. People that I still would trust with my life, even
    considering how close as I came to losing it in 2007. I respect anyone
    who is trying to push these boundaries and doing the best they can to
    advance all of our abilities. I lose respect for people that don’t think the engineers who have
    spent their entire professional lives working with these kinds of
    aircraft, rockets, or flight test don’t have the technical acumen, diligence, knowledge, integrity, discipline, or consciousness to do everything possible to keep designs and tests as safe as possible. Too often I see attacks on exactly those characteristics.

    I appreciate that your site covers all the space news that it does. If you want to keep covering all the technical expertise and engineering that goes into these programs, please keep at it. I know that from the outside, sometimes the marketing and executive speak is all you have access to, but I challenge you to try to keep out speculation and attempts to make tenuous links between marketing/executive speak and the detailed engineering or professionals that are actually doing the work. If you’ve ever actually been inside any kind of major engineering program, you would know that one does not necessarily relate to the other.

    • Douglas Messier says:

      I apologize for misspelling your name.

      Your name and the names of the other two Scaled employees who were seriously injured were included to demonstrate the full scope of the accident was not limited to just those who died. I felt it would have been remiss of me to have left them out.

    • Douglas Messier says:

      The relevant aspect of the outside report I cited on the 2007 incident you were involved in is not their theory about what went wrong. That is their best guess. Scaled put together an entire team of experts, and I don’t think even they settled on a definite cause.

      The important part involves whether Scaled did its due diligence on nitrous oxide. And if they had, the company would ever have allowed people anywhere near the test stand during the cold flow. They believe the answer is no to both of these questions. You are free to disagree.

      I would note, which I did not in the post, that Cal-OSHA did not feel that Scaled did not take proper safety precautions relating to the test and fined the company $26,000 and change. Scaled cleared disagreed with that judgment in that appealed the fine. If memory recalls, I don’t think they won that case.

      Ultimately, what Scaled and Virgin and outside authorities like Peter Diamandis say about these accidents and the safety of their vehicles matters immensely. If their statements are misleading that will come back to haunt this industry.

      I understand that you see this from an engineering perspective and there’s a difference between what’s happening on the hangar floor and what people say. I get that.

      I see it from a customer perspective. I see people signing up for tickets and putting down deposits and putting their faith not in what the engineers are saying (for they have little if any contact with them) but what the corporate entities involved and their leaders say. If it’s not accurate, they’re being misled.

      People can’t go around making safety assurances they can’t keep. You can’t be flying passengers under informed consent and requiring them to largely give up their right to sue and then make assurances that things will be perfectly safe. If this accident proves anything, it is that.

      I also look at things from the public perspective. Virgin has received $390 million in Abu Dhabi government investment through Aabar. Another $218.5 million (and counting) in New Mexico taxpayer’s money. It matters a great deal what people are telling them.

  5. Douglas Messier says:

    It was a larger group than the one person you cite. Read the report more closely.

    So why are they wrong in thinking u don’t have 11 people standing next to a test stand while flowing high pressure mono propellant nitrous oxide? They are hardly alone in thinking so. Engineers I know here who have worked with nitrous believe the same. Why are they wrong in thinking Rutan and Scaled didn’t do their due diligence on nitrous?

    What is your background? Anonymous commentators online are even easier to come by. Judging from your Disques record, you’re an expert in everything and have loads of time to comment on all of it.

  6. Douglas Messier says:

    >U don’t need to go all the way to Europe to find a race car jockey for a piece of quote to fit your narrative.

    Well, OK. I’ll keep that in mind.Thank you.

    It wasn’t simply her analysis. You don’t seem to be able to grasp that part.

    Still doesn’t tell me why they’re wrong. Or address the actual the thrust of the piece. But I didn’t expect it to.

    Will have to take your word for your background since there appears to be no way to verify it. You could be anyone claiming anything here. Less informed than the people you’re criticizing, maybe.

  7. Douglas Messier says:

    Why are they wrong?

  8. Douglas Messier says:

    Well, it seems fairly certain that they are right that people shouldn’t have been standing next to the test stand for the cold flow because the thing blew up and people died. Clearly a fatal mistake.

    The question is how knowledgeable does one need to be to know how stupid that decision was in advance. Should Scaled have known it was unsafe and taken proper precautions? They say yes. Cal-OSHA says yes. Scaled says no. If you think Scaled is wrong, that opens up all sorts of uncomfortable questions that few people in this industry want to address about their due diligence, candor and competence.

    So, we can explore that. Or we can pick apart the credentials of the report’s authors and ignore those larger questions.

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