Spacecraft Crash Diminishes Space Tourism Dreams

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, tiny pieces of debris from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo wreckage were found 35 miles from the main crash site – an area spanning over 5-miles in the Mojave Desert. The accident, which killed one crewmember and severely injured the pilot, occurred this past Friday, but investigators have yet to figure out why the craft prematurely shifted shape just moments before the crash.

Earlier on Monday, NTSB’s acting chairman, Christopher Hart, announced that the co-pilot had unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s unique “feathering” system earlier than originally planned. Like the wingflaps of an airplane, the system works to slow descent; the spacecraft’s twin tails rotate up to create an extreme angle that creates strong resistance for deceleration.

Unlocking the feathers, however, should not have been enough to alter the craft’s configuration. In order to engage the system, the pilot must also pull a lever.

For investigators, this raises some interesting questions. For example, why did the co-pilot prematurely activate the system in the first place? Why did the tails also rotate without the co-pilot initiating the function?

Peter Knudson, NTSB’s spokesman, could only offer probable explanations: on-site investigators believed that “aerodynamic forces” surrounding the craft, as it traveled at 760 mph, caused the feathers to start rotating once unlocked. According to Hart, the actual function should not have been engaged until after the craft reached a speed of Mach 1.4 (roughly 1,000). Investigators are also currently looking into other factors as well, although Knudson believes it will take months to determine a final cause.

In the meantime, SpaceShipTwo’s crash has severely undermined Richard Branson’s goal of commercial space travel. Virgin Galactic now lacks an aircraft for the mission and its project will be delayed until everything is thoroughly tested again.

The crash might also impede the progression of the commercial space tourism in general, simply due to safety concerns. During the past decade, the Federal Aviation Administration did not overregulate test flights, in order to allow room for the industry to grow.

But the unfortunate accident could allow the FAA to propose new regulations – although, for the time being, the FAA has not made a comment. It is unlikely to do so until after the NTSB investigation finishes.