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Character, Candor & Competence: Lessons From the SpaceShipTwo Crash

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
January 25, 2016
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SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)

SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

One of the most interesting aspects of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the SpaceShipTwo crash was how it pulled back the curtain on what was actually going on in the program being undertaken in Mojave. Over the years, the rhetoric has been frequently at odds with reality.

“Op-Ed Letter of Gratitude to the Aerospace Valley,” by Mojave Air and Space Port CEO/General Manager Stuart O. Witt is an interesting case in point. The letter, which Witt wrote in November 2014, was a response to the loss of SpaceShipTwo and Mike Alsbury on Oct. 31 and the deaths of National Test Pilot School instructor Mike Hill and student pilot Ilam Zigante in a place crash one week earlier.

The twin tragedies hit the Mojave community hard. Witt’s goals were honorable enough: to buck up everyone, to give credit where credit was due, and show the community that the emergency had been handled competently and professionally. This is what we would expect from a strong leader who has built up Mojave into the world’s premiere test site for civilian space.

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

Yet, his portrayal of Mojave’s heroic response to the SpaceShipTwo accident is significantly at odds in places with the reality that emerged in the NTSB investigation. The response to the accident was slow and fragmented, and the actions of some of the people involved following the accident fell well short of the high character which Witt attributes to these individuals.

Witt wrote the letter at a time when he and other officials were restricted from talking about details of the accident. So, he couldn’t have talked about the shortcomings in the response even if he had wanted to. By the same token, the government-imposed period of silence made it difficult to really fact-check what Witt did say about the incident. The full story didn’t emerge until the release NTSB documents in late July.

Witt’s essay is reproduced below. I have interspersed commentary based upon NTSB documents and Parabolic Arc’s own reporting.

Op-Ed Letter of Gratitude to the Aerospace Valley
CEO Stuart Witt

Stu Witt (Credit: MASP)

Stu Witt (Credit: MASP)

Character is seldom created during the good times. Character in my glossary of terms defines the people with whom you choose to work, play and socialize. Over the past four weeks my 62 year definition of Character has not changed. Most don’t seem to realize the human sacrifice involved with each phase of furthering human movement around the Earth. From 10,000 years ago to 150 years ago humans traveled at the speed of their feet. Today we travel at .82 Mach in pressurized air conditioned comfort. Statistically, all reach their destination safely. All of this advancement occurred in the past 115 years! Not a bad contribution from the dreamers/funders/developers/testers/operators. But, from time to time we (our little club) pay a costly fee for our contribution to humanity’s safe movement around the globe.

For us the morning of October 24 started out like most others. It included a brief scan of the daily flight test schedule, a brief on the special testing of rocket engines on the north side, and official visitors. Running a test airport/spaceport has a natural way of keeping you on edge at all times, even though most may never see that dimension in your eyes. Just ask Kevin our Operations Director or Harold our Maintenance/Fuels Director or me. What we did not know at 0926 on 24 Oct was that our Character would be exposed to the world over the next four weeks, beginning in one minute.

My first clue, “Stu, Tiger 3 is overdue and Tower just said an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) can be heard on 121.5 mhz. from somewhere near Koehn Dry Lake”… This info taken separately is common, taken together is not good and triggers action by many. My response to Kevin, “take Chris, take a case of water and start driving north on 14. I will go to “the School” (NTPS) and obtain what I can and relay. (Latitude Longitude, etc., frequency for Search and Rescue SAR) Call 911 and make a preparatory call for assistance from KCSO and KCFD, request the FD helicopter from Keene. I will be right behind you.” It did not take long to ascertain that Tiger 3 was not responsive by radio or cell phone. We are very familiar with the operating area and info was arriving fast. I relayed best Lat/Long info received and headed north where I intercepted Kevin and Chris and two KCSO units on Randsburg Road west of Garlock. As the day unfolded we soon realized the valley had lost an incredibly talented test pilot and German flight engineer on a training/instructional flight east of Koehn Lake. This led to a long introspective weekend for many and the questions began flying, “Why, How, etc.”… Answers all unknown, even as I write. But we could not get past the depth of our loss. It hurt and affected the entire valley and RDT&E Flight Community.

A plaque honoring Mike Hill and Ilam Zigante. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

A plaque honoring Mike Hill and Ilam Zigante. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By the end of the first memorial on 29 Oct we were still in a daze but beginning to function as a unit once again. The airport was in high gear and the school was easing back in the air. We had conducted our mandatory emergency responders briefing in preparation for Friday’s planned SS2 powered flight. By Thursday evening as ground crews were preparing for fueling, our focus has shifted. Things were moving forward. Outcomes from the previous week, our execution of our internally and externally SAR efforts regarding the Tiger 3 mishap were professional and by the book. You could say, we were tuned up for all the wrong reasons, ready for the last mishap…as always the case.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo aloft on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo aloft on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

We were now ready to return to the airport NLT 0400 on 31 Oct to begin operations for a 0800 takeoff and planned 0915 release of SS2. We all arrived on schedule and once again I received my morning status briefing…”a delay of perhaps 1-2 hours for rather normal reasons, slightly cooler than expected temps”. Our daily emergency responders briefing included three new faces from the KCSO’s office and one from the KCFD. We went through each detail as if it were everyone’s first time. Each one of these sessions ends with an overview of current events and items to keep in your head as we enter game time. This IS THE REAL DEAL…EVERYTIME.

Editor’s Note: The REAL DEAL it certainly was. And that’s exactly what makes the pre-flight safety preparations so mystifying.

SpaceShipTwo’s fourth powered flight would be the riskiest to date. They were using a brand new type of hybrid engine that had never been fired in flight before. They were going to burn the new engine for nearly double the amount of time as any previous engine. The burn would propel the spacecraft to nearly twice the altitude, followed by SpaceShipTwo’s first supersonic feathered descent.

In short, it was a high-risk flight that involved a significant expansion of SpaceShipTwo’s flight test envelope. Any number of things could go wrong that could produce what people in the industry euphemistically call “a bad day”.

So, how did the airport, Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, and county law enforcement and emergency officials respond to the most dangerous flight in the program yet? They lengthened the time it would take to respond to an accident off the airport.

For SpaceShipTwo’s three previous powered flights, a Kern County Fire Department emergency helicopter was pre-positioned at the Mojave spaceport from its base in Keene. This move had several advantages. Mojave was located about 20 miles south of the main drop zone. It is a straight shot north over relatively flat desert terrain. A rescue chopper could be in the area in 10 to 15 minutes flying time depending upon exactly where it needed to go.

Keene is located about 37 miles northwest of Mojave on the other side of a large mountain range. The town is subject to morning fog that can hinder the operation of the helicopters based there. A rescue helicopter might have trouble taking off at the very moment it would be needed to respond to one of SpaceShipTwo’s early morning flight tests.

Despite all this, county officials suggested at a safety briefing three days before the accident that the helicopter be kept in Keene in order to respond to any nearby emergencies. Surprisingly, no one from Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic or the airport objected to the plan.

This was rather astonishing given the high-risk nature of the flight and the fact that Mojave had just lost two people days earlier on a routine training flight. One might expect everyone to be extra vigilant about safety, to go the extra mile to make sure they could immediately respond to downed pilots or members of the uninvolved public who might be injured by falling debris.

Interestingly, there was a rescue helicopter already based in Mojave: Mercy Air 14, a fully equipped air ambulance with advanced life support equipment that operated under contract with the county. But, following standard procedure, nobody from Mercy Air was included in any pre-flight safety briefings. Nor did anyone tell them to be on standby.

Yes, SpaceShipTwo powered flight no. 4 was the REAL DEAL. But, rescuers were less prepared to rapidly respond if something went wrong than they had been on the previous three powered tests.

Siebold descends under parachute near Koehn Dry Lake. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/NTSA)

Siebold descends under parachute near Koehn Dry Lake. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/NTSA)

WITT: As the usual airport employee crowd gathered at the base of the tower we noticed a somewhat larger group than normal. Nice day, big crowd, “We see the contrails of WhiteKnightTwo 50+ miles east headed our way” was the whisper in the crowd. As onlookers listened to Carl in the Tower clear “SCAT” for landing the crowd became characteristically silent….absolutely silent. Three two one, release, release, release… item away, good light, nominal… Then nothing…..Character time had begun for the second week in a row. Second Friday in a row…nearly the same time, same location over the north test ranges. Then the radio calls which say so much to the listening grey beards. “One Chute”, and the pre-briefed emergency responder Cavalry departed to the north on cue.

Al Peterson (Credit: MASP)

Al Peterson (Credit: MASP)

So, who displayed Character?

Dr. Al Peterson (former USA veteran and test pilot). Volunteer UH-1N pilot of Tiger 1 who one week earlier had lost his best friend and test pilot, along with Nicola Pecile (Italian AF Test Pilot), Ed Solskey (Former Canadian AF Test Pilot) & EMT Patrick Campbell, first to make contact with SS2 Survivor, and Dr. Chuck Antonio MD.(former USN pilot and MD) Russ Stewart (former USAF Test Pilot), C.J. Sturckow (former USMC and NASA Astronaut), Nigel Speedy (South African Test Pilot) on different days who just happened to be airborne and answered the call to provide airborne on-scene command or first on scene.

Editor’s Note: So, here’s how the rescue of Scaled Composites pilot Pete Siebold went down. By the time the first rescue reached him, he had been lying in the scrub brush west of Koehn Lake for 34 minutes. It had been 45 minutes since the first report had reached Mojave that SpaceShipTwo had broken up.

The first helicopter on the scene, flown by Peterson, was from the National Test Pilot School. At Witt’s request, Peterson and others had pulled it out of the hangar and conducted a pre-flight of the chopper before getting into the air. Once the helicopter was airborne, it took 11 minutes to reach Siebold’s location, which had been pinpointed by the chase plane.

The county helicopter from Keene landed about five minutes later. It took longer to reach the location because it was further away and was slow getting off the ground after it was told to launch.

Mercy Air was out of service and conducting a routine maintenance flight over the Mojave airport at the time SpaceShipTwo broke up. Even after the crew landed and put the helicopter back into service, the county held back on dispatching it to the scene.

So, they’ve got a seriously injured pilot lying in the sagebrush for more than half an hour after surviving a fall from 50,000 feet without a pressure suit, and the best these guys could do after preparing for the REAL DEAL was by using a helicopter they had to pull out of the hangar and cold start because nothing else was available in Mojave for what was arguably the most dangerous flight of the SpaceShipTwo program.

WITT: These professionals each provided precise descriptive commentary to guide follow-up responders along with Air Traffic Controllers from Mojave, Edwards and FAA, just doing their jobs. Just average folks who a few days earlier were mourning the loss of a squadron mate and a week later saving another. (foreign and domestic, competitors, collaborators, pilots, controllers) Mercy Air Medical Responders who quietly carries out their craft daily, but on these two days in October 2014 were supporting the same people whom they meet for lunch at the Voyager. Character on call and in full view.

The spot part of SpaceShipTwo's cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The spot part of SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Kevin (former USN rescue swimmer) and Chris from our Operations and Security divisions, first on scene two weeks in a row. Kevin and Chris have my deepest respect for running to the sound of gunfire. Character. Then there is our office staff, who to a person just knows what to do because they have participated in training so many times under the leadership of former employee Bob Rice and our Fire Chief Rich Fauble and Deputy Joe Hughes who guide us in emergency preparedness. Through them we know exactly what to do and where to go FIRST. All true professionals, like Tenina, Lynn, Carmelita and Carrie who run our front office and accounting office by day, instantly shift gears and manage public information, set up spaces for press conferences, established and captured exacting time lines with Mike and Sara in security, lock down video, weather info, and prepare me for mandatory reporting to FAA/NTSB/AST and congressional members. Cam Martin and John Kelly from NASA Armstrong who quietly settled in and began collecting data for my press notes and organizing assistance from NASA and USAF grief counselors. Deborah Roth, my assistant who quietly knows “how to think for me”, especially during crisis. Character on display.

All responders from Chief Brian Marshall’s KCFD: Deputy Chief Mike Cody, Battalion Chief Jim Eckroth, Steve Pendergrass and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood who personally committed hundreds of personnel including Mojave Substation leadership Lt Little and SGT Williams, Cal City Fire and PD, Ridgecrest PD, who took on scene command and established 7/24 control providing GIS Mapping of the entire debris field for NTSP. Hundreds of volunteer KCSO Search and Rescue personnel. Character at every level.

Editor’s Note: Nobody would question the character and bravery of first responders. They risk their own lives to save the lives of others. Their job is to respond to awful incidents where people are injured, dead or dying. The scene where Alsbury’s body crashed down was particularly grisly. I saw it. Anyone with the fortitude to deal with those situations on a regular basis deserves our respect and admiration.

The problem is this case is that when it mattered most, the pre-flight planning was deficient and the response inexplicably slow. Pat Williams, the pilot who flew the rescue helicopter from Keene, admitted to NTSB investigators that the emergency response was “fragmented” and that “it wasn’t good dispatch.” He later put together a timeline “to produce a training point on how not to dispatch an incident.”

Federal investigators agreed. “The NTSB is concerned that Scaled conducted a high-risk flight test without the on-airport presence of a helicopter that was specifically prepared for and tasked with supporting an emergency response….The NTSB concludes that Scaled Composites and local emergency response officials could improve their emergency readiness for future test flights by making better use of available helicopter assets,” the final accident report reads.

The response could have been a lot more complicated that it was that day. Siebold’s injuries were not life threatening; if they had been, the delay in responding could have been fatal.

If co-pilot Mike Alsbury had survived the breakup and parachuted to safety, responders might have been dealing with two seriously injured pilots in different parts of the desert. As it was, Alsbury and part of the cockpit missed hitting two truck drivers on Cantil Road who had passed the spot where they came down seconds earlier.

This was a scary incident because the primary goal of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in overseeing this industry is to protect the uninvolved public. There’s a widespread belief that it was safe to launch over lightly populated areas because nobody on the ground would be hit if anything went wrong. And the first time one of these ships goes down, the debris nearly hits two truck drivers.

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

WITT: So, while we continue to mourn our deep losses from the month of October 2014, from my desk to so many in the Aerospace Valley from Ridgecrest to Palmdale, who chose this profession from so many perspectives, test pilots to office assistants and aircraft maintainers/fuelers, controllers, operations directors, emergency responders you showed your Character. To the responsible members of the nation’s press corps who patiently waited for a call back, you too have displayed character by accurately reporting and not running off with false information.

Editor’s Note: Witt is right. I screwed up when I misinterpreted SpaceShipTwo’s breakup as an explosion. Others in the media screwed up. We should have waited. We should have called. We should have done better that day. It was an honest mistake made under a lot of pressure, not an attempt to mislead anyone. Lesson learned, let’s do better next time. That is what the learning period is for, is it not?

What’s objectionable, in the context of this letter, is that Witt singles out the media as the only group that screwed up that day. This was clearly not the case. Far bigger mistakes were made that day – and during the course of a decade-long program that has claimed four lives without getting anywhere near space.

The other problem is that Witt sees the failure as a defect in character as opposed to an honest mistake. If he wants to define it that way, that’s up to him. But, if he’s going to applying such a harsh judgment to people, he needs to be consistent about it.

The fact is the press corps actually ended up disseminating far more false information after it check in with official sources, who happened to be some of Witt’s tenants and best friends. And that brings us to the final part of his letter….

WITT: To the kind notes of encouragement from all corners of the Aerospace Valley your messages were timely and most sincerely received. To my dear friends at the National Test Pilot School, Scaled Composites, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Galactic, you are collectively a “class act” and we are so very proud to serve alongside your teams.

Simply stated, I’ve never been so pleased to be a member of a small team with Character, who choose to make a big difference for our nation and the world.

Editor’s Note: Almost immediately after the crash, Virgin Galactic put out a statement in which it put complete responsibility for the test flight on its development partner, Scaled Composites. While previous tests had been trumpeted as joint flights, the implication was that Virgin Galactic had nothing to do with this failure.

It was a false claim. Virgin Galactic took part in the planning of the flight test and the remaining flight test schedule. It was Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo that dropped the spacecraft on its final flight. One of its pilots flew the chase plane. There were Virgin Galctic employees manning key stations at Mission Control.

Where’s the class? Where’s the character?

Kevin Mickey

Kevin Mickey

Things just got worse. Four hours after Michael Alsbury died, Scaled Composites President Kevin Mickey stood before television cameras at a press conference that Witt presided over and told the nation and the world that the change from the rubber to nylon hybrid was a “minor nuance.”

This claim was blatantly false. The switch involved significant modifications to SpaceShipTwo and its propulsion system that took months to make. The changes added significant uncertainties and new failure modes to the ship being tested on that fateful Halloween morning.

I wanted to ask Mickey about his statement, but he literally ran out of the Stuart O. Witt Event Center after the press conference ended. Perhaps he had a good reason to do so; perhaps not. The result is that he gave the media and public a false understanding of the risks of that flight and then didn’t stick around to clarify anything. It doesn’t matter that the engine played no part in the crash; the claim was simply wrong.

Whatever Mickey’s statement lacked in candor, it more than made up for in consistence. This was exactly the same talking point that Virgin Galactic had been using since it announced the move to the nylon engine in May 2014. Officials claimed it was primarily a change in fuel grain with some minor plumbing changes.

At the Space Access Conference six months after the crash, Virgin Galactic Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz corrected me several times when I asked him about the engine change. He insisted it was a change of fuel grain. Three months later, the NTSB released documents that proved him wrong.

The irony is that while Scaled and Virgin were hailing Alsbury as an American hero, they were downplaying the very dangers that he and Siebold faced on that flight. It wasn’t until nine months after the crash that NTSB documents confirmed the risks they were taking.

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)

Twenty four hours after the crash, Richard Branson stood before the media and misled everyone. He said safety was Virgin’s number one priority, that the company was undertaking the “biggest test program every carried out in commercial aviation history,” implied that no ticket holders had canceled their reservations, and denied having ever met Alsbury, the brave test pilot who had died testing Sir Richard’s space plane 24 hours earlier.

Not one of these claims was accurate. Schedule, not safety, was driving the flight test program at this point. Virgin had cut the number of additional powered flight tests in the program to a handful. Because SpaceShipTwo wasn’t being certified in the same way that commercial airliners are, Branson’s description of the test flight program was patently false. As the owner of multiple airlines, it’s hard to believe he didn’t know this already.

Sources also told Parabolic Arc that ticket holders had already canceled their reservations the same day SpaceShipTwo crashed. Branson’s claim to have never met the pilot who had just died testing his space plane was another whopper; they had met on the Mojave flight line the previous year after Alsbury had been co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight.

A majority of Virgin Galactic's future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

A majority of Virgin Galactic’s future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Many media ended up passing them on to the public uncritically. The one thing Branson really got really dinged on was the claim about Alsbury. There were photos and videos of their meeting. Branson later wrote a blog post that implied he had told the media that he didn’t know Alsbury well. But, that was not what he said. Branson “corrected” his misstatement with yet another one.

Rhetoric & Reality

Lest any think all the spin being put out was a fluke, the result of the trauma surrounding the accident, the reality is that it happens all the time. There’s what people say, and then there’s the reality on the ground. The gap between them can be huge at times. Between NDA agreements and the unofficial Mojave code of silence, finding the truth here is a tough job.

The truth is nobody in Mojave really gets all that upset about the media “running off with false information” as long as they uncritically report whatever claims officials are shoveling out there for public consumption. What they really get upset about is when the truth leaks out that contradicts their carefully crafted messages.

mojave_tower_sunset_smThis points to a duality about the Mojave Airport. It is a public facility run by a board elected by local residents. As a duly incorporated government, it has an obligation to the voters to run the airport responsibly and be open and candid in its communications with the public. This is the essence of good governance.

Yet, Mojave’s governing structure is unusual. The board’s authority stops at the airport fence. Unlike a town council, the airport’s board makes no decisions that directly affect the voters. The usual vibrancy of local government – residents packing board meetings to protest decisions – is lacking in airport governance. There are no political parties fighting for control.

Thus, the airport is run more like a private business. The primary constituents are the tenants who pay rent. For Witt, running the airport meant supporting these companies, protecting their work from public scrutiny, downplaying their mistakes, and maintaining radio silence as they spun the press and the public on any number of things. This approach helped the companies and the larger commercial space industry of which Witt is a leader.

Word & Actions

Witt’s intentions here to buck up Mojave during a time of crisis and give credit where credit was due were noble enough. It’s a sign of the strong leadership he demonstrated in nearly 14 years running the airport.

It’s just that the portrait he paints here is seriously at odds with the reality of that day. And ironically, it ended up giving the public a distorted picture of what happened, the very thing he decried in his op-ed as a failure of character by members of the press.

Words matter. Actions matter. A lot of people in Mojave fell short in both areas when SpaceShipTwo broke up that day. To suggest otherwise, or to selectively assign blame only to certain parties, is not fair, nor does it help us learn from our mistakes. What’s the point of a learning period if nothing changes?

It’s never a good thing when rhetoric overwhelms reality. People start believing their own bullshit. And they begin to act accordingly, focusing on what they’ve promised rather than what they can realistically deliver. An atmosphere develops that is toxic to any efforts to address the critical gap between words and actions. You need look no further than the Challenger disaster for proof.

If this was another industry – say, expendable satellite launch vehicles flown from fixed pads – there would be much less to worry about. We know how to launch those safely without endangering the un-involved public. There are clear safety protocols and strict regulations to ensure no one dies if a comsat launch goes awry.

Commercial human spaceflight doesn’t have any of those protections. The government has given the industry extraordinary freedom to do what it wants with limited oversight. In return, government has a reasonable expectation that industry will be on its best behavior.

People will be placing their lives in the hands of the flight providers. They have a right to expect candor about the risks they are taking. Otherwise, the industry is setting itself up for a big fall when someone has another bad day.

Background Reading

SpaceShipTwo’s PF-04: A High-Risk Flight

SpaceShipTwo Pilots Faced Extremely High Work Loads

A Good Light, Then a Fatal Mistake

Pete Siebold’s Harrowing Descent

Shock, Tears & Spin: The Aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo Crash

“Minor Nuance” in SpaceShipTwo’s Propulsion System Was Neither

Virgin Galactic Misled Ticket Holders, Public on Complexity of Engine Change

The Long Gap Between SpaceShipTwo Powered Flights 3 & 4 Explained

SpaceShipTwo: Lessons Learned on the Commercial Space Frontier

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