July 28, 2015

NTSB Concludes Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Accident Investigation

Today, a team of impartial experts at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded their thorough investigation of the in-flight breakup of SpaceShipTwo during a test flight on October 31, 2014.  In a public hearing held at the NTSB’s headquarters in Washington, DC, the organization’s experts and board members discussed their findings from the investigation.

As our founder, Richard Branson, said: “While it is good to have passed this milestone and be able to focus on the future, we are acutely aware that it does not alter the fact that this was at heart a human tragedy. Our thoughts go out again today to the family, friends and colleagues of Mike Alsbury.”

Ultimately, the NTSB concluded that “the probable cause of this accident was [Virgin Galactic contractor] Scaled Composites’ failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to un-commanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight breakup of the vehicle.“

The NTSB also determined that there was “no evidence of any structural, system, or rocket motor failures” before the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system initiated the breakup. No members of the public were harmed in the accident, and there were no passengers nor customers onboard the vehicle.

Based on their findings, the NTSB has issued ten recommendations related to the accident. Eight of these recommendations were given to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, while two were for the commercial spaceflight industry in general. The NTSB issued no recommendations to Virgin Galactic nor to our sister company, TSC.

The full hearing webcast is expected to be posted online shortly–we will edit this post to provide a link as soon as it is available. Virgin Galactic’s extensive submission to the investigation can be freely downloaded here.

In his concluding remarks, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart spoke eloquently about the future of the commercial spaceflight industry, noting the widely-held and longstanding desire for a commercial program that could allow space enthusiasts and professionals from around the world the opportunity to experience spaceflight. At Virgin Galactic, we are fully committed to realizing this dream. We are determined to learn and to improve as a result of this tragic accident. Already, we have taken important steps to prevent any such future occurrence, with particular focus on pilot training, crew resource management in flight, and the already-completed addition of a mechanical inhibit system that would prevent premature unlocking in the future.

Our thanks go out to the experts at the NTSB and to everyone who has supported and helped us in our journey to open space.