More Revealed about Siebold’s Escape from SpaceShipTwo

Yes, there was a thumbs up. Through an interview with the father of the SpaceShipTwo pilot, the Daily Mail has reported more details of the near fatal plunge of Peter Siebold from the explosive event that destroyed Scaled Composites’ space vehicle. The ill-fated test flight resulted in the death of the co-pilot, Mike Alsbury. Siebold was visited by his father, Dr Klaus Siebold of Seattle, Washington, after Siebold was released from the hospital.

The Daily Mail story confirms what had been rumor from anonymous sources inside Scale Composites, the company founded by Burt Rutan that created the first privately developed vehicle to exceed the Karman line and reach the environs of outer space. As has been rumored, pilot Siebold, while on parachute, gave a thumbs up sign to a nearby chase plane to indicate he was conscious.

Scaled Composites test pilot Michael Alsbury perished in the powered test flight of the SS Enterprise, October 31, 2014. Alsbury and Siebold were close friends and the families as well. (Photo Credit: Scaled Composites)
Scaled Composites test pilot Michael Alsbury perished in the powered test flight of the SS Enterprise, October 31, 2014. Alsbury and Siebold were close friends and the families were as well. (Photo Credit: Scaled Composites)

Dr. Siebold, speaking to a Daily Mail reporter, described how his son fell from 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) after SpaceShipTwo broke apart while traveling at a speed of mach 1.2, that is, 913 mph (1,470 km/hr). Early findings of the NTSB investigation have revealed that SpaceShipTwo’s twin tails feathered, that is, folded up, prematurely, creating excessive forces on the carbon composite air frame and led to the craft’s break up.

Dr. Siebold told the Daily Mail that his son is not sure how he separated from the vehicle during the violent event at supersonic speed. He could not recall any details of the sudden event. Such high speed events can take place in a matter of a second or less.

His co-pilot and close friend, Mike Alsbury, was not able to escape from the broken vehicle and fell with the debris to his death to the floor of the Mojave desert. The fall to Earth of the broken vehicle and the two test pilots took over four minutes traveling at a terminal velocity of approximately 150 mph (220 ft/sec, 67 m/s).

Dr. Siebold went on to describe his son’s narrow escape. Pilot Siebold could not recall the breakup and only recalls waking up at 20,000 feet (6096 meters). Both pilots flew with emergency parachutes. Such parachutes would not deploy or deploy correctly without the pilot separating from his pilot seat. As he awoke, Peter Siebold was sufficiently coherent to realize his circumstances and unbuckled himself. The parachute subsequently deployed but the accounting by the father, Dr. Siebold, did not make clear whether his son pulled the rip cord or the parachute was deployed automatically. Both pilots’ parachutes had mechanisms to force automatic deployment at 20,000 feet altitude. However, when a pilot is still strapped into his pilot seat, parachute deployment would be disabled or if executed, would cause severe injury to the person due to the propulsive forces that push the chute from the bag. Such forces would be forced upon the pilot’s body while locked into his seat.

The break-up led to three coinciding invasive events: sudden deceleration forces, the creation of high velocity projectiles – debris – surrounding the pilots, and a decompression event. The pilots wore simple oxygen masks without pressure suits, so their bodies withstood a split second change from cabin pressure of 1 atmosphere to that of a near-vacuum pressure. Any or all three events at breakup were responsible for the pilots’ losing consciousness within seconds if not immediately. The investigation has not revealed how co-pilot Alsbury lost his life, whether during the break-up or at impact with the Earth.

The story provides more details of Peter Siebold’s life. He has two young sons and was inspired by his father, a private pilot, to learn to fly and ultimately receive a job with Scaled Composites over ten years ago. Having no knowledge of a powered test flight that morning, Dr. Siebold described to the Daily Mail how he received a frantic call from his daughter in-law. Siebold’s wife and children were standing alongside their close friends – the children and wife of Mike Alsbury when the catastrophic event unfolded in the skies above them.

The flight took off during the early hours of October 31, 2014, on what appeared to be the beginning of a final phase of testing to qualify the spaceship for commercial flight. With early findings revealing that the event was apparently triggered by Alsbury’s inadvertently releasing the safing mechanism for feathering the tail sections, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are beginning to express a likelihood that test flights will restart in as short as 6 months. Apparently, neither the NTSB nor FAA has enforced any grounding of the test program and vehicle. While pilot error may have been involved, the NTSB has included that the act of feathering the tails to slow down the vehicle during its descent from a high altitude requires unlocking the safing mechanism followed by a second step that folds the tail section. The second action would be similar to the act of lowering one’s landing flaps for landing: something which would be well understood by any private or commercial pilot.

Reference Article:

Space pilot on way down gave thumbs to say OK

SpaceShipTwo Pilot’s Survival is Miraculous

In this reporter’s initial article for Universe Today on the SpaceShipTwo accident, it was already clear that the survival of one of the two pilots was remarkable. How did the SpaceShipTwo pilot Peter Siebold survive while co-pilot Michael Alsbury did not? The SpaceShipTwo test pilots do not wear pressure suits. There are no ejection seats like in a jet fighter but they do wear parachutes.

During the powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo on October 31st, at the moment that the vehicle broke up, its altitude was approximately 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) and it was traveling at mach 1.0  (1225 kph, 761 mph). Sudden decompression at that altitude leaves a pilot a few seconds before losing consciousness. To understand how Siebold survived, consider how this breakup compares to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Challenger was at 48,000 feet (14,600 meters) and SpaceShipTwo was at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) when their breakups occurred. Both were within the same speed regime – between mach 1 and mach 2.

Scaled Composites test pilot Michael Alsbury perished in the powered test flight of the SS Enterprise, October 31, 2014.
Scaled Composites test pilot Michael Alsbury perished in the powered test flight of the SS Enterprise, October 31, 2014.

I was a graduate student stationed at the Space Science Lab at Marshall Space Flight Center on that winter day in 1986. The NASA research researchers and professors, students from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, were sitting together in a conference room. The presenter concluded his final remarks on his research work then said, thank you and we can now turn around (to the NASA TV monitor) and watch Challenger launch. The countdown was at about T-20 seconds and so we watched, then a cloud appeared that with each passing moment did not seem normal. I recall watching and thinking, come on out, come on, you can make it. Challenger never did. There was no miraculous recovery with the Shuttle pilots steering it out of the cloud and back down to the Cape to cheers and a heroes welcome. We all filed out of the room in silence knowing what had happened but not wanting to believe it. Months later, experts concluded that the Challenger crew, most likely, survived the plunge back to Earth only to perish when the cabin impacted the ocean surface at over 200 mph (321 kph).

That was the first of two Space Shuttle accidents. The other, the Columbia disaster, occurred at a much higher altitude and velocity. That was a Saturday morning. Sleeping in after a long week of analyzing design documents and source code for the Mars Rovers, my girlfriend at the time nudged me awake to say, Tim, something is wrong with the Space Shuttle. I grudgingly got up, not wanting to see anything bad on a pleasant Saturday morning, but CNN was showing it break up over Texas.

I never worked in the Space Shuttle program but Shuttle was larger than life and every NASA employee took its triumphs and tragedies personally. For all those working on SpaceShipTwo and friends and family and those at the Mojave Air and Space Port on that day, it is no different. The tragedy and the moments surrounding the incident stay with you forever.

The Pilot of SpaceShiptTwo, Peter Siebold, survived the catastrophic breakup of the vehicle at Mach 1.0 and an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 m). (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
The Pilot of SpaceShiptTwo, Peter Siebold, survived the catastrophic breakup of the vehicle at Mach 1.0 and an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 m). (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

With all this in mind, I consider the question of how one man survived and the other did not with SpaceShipTwo. Both pilots were wearing only simple jump suits. No pressurization. They had supplemental oxygen through masks just like a fighter pilot has during flight. SpaceShipTwo did not afford them ejection seats like a fighter jet. Fighter jet pilots can eject at supersonic speeds but chances of surviving the shock of ejection rapidly falls with speed.

SpaceShipTwo is equipped with an escape hatch but once SpaceShipTwo disintegrated, the hatch was of no use. Both pilots were suddenly exposed to open air and a supersonic slipstream. So how did Siebold survive?

When the vehicle broke up, the sudden decompression surrounding them stripped objects from the interior. They were surrounded by lethal projectiles. It was a matter of chance whether one or both were struck by debris and lost consciousness. In the case of Shuttle Challenger, the astronauts experienced a sudden 20 G force at break up, however, analysts concluded that they likely survived the initial breakup. Challenger astronauts had helmets and a supplemental oxygen supply. One or two of the oxygen supplies had actually been activated and drained by their respective astronaut as the cabin was falling back to Earth. The Shuttle cabin survived the breakup largely intact and protected the astronauts from the supersonic slipstream outside.

SpaceShipTwo’s breakup likely exposed both pilots to the slipstream at still over mach 1. Flying debris was their first challenge. Second, the sudden decompression and then deceleration forces struck them. According to an anonymous source within Scaled Composites, the Washington Post reported yesterday that both pilots remained buckled into their seats. Alsbury never separated from the seat and cabin, and information reaching the public reveals that he impacted at high speed still within some fraction of the remaining cabin.

The anonymous sources within Scaled Composites revealed that Siebold was able to unbuckle from his seat and deploy his chute at 17,000 feet (5,181 m). It is very likely that even Siebold fell unconscious from the initial stresses of the breakup and from decompression at 50,000 feet (15,240 m). He would have fallen into an unconscious state at that height and only have woken up once near 17,000 feet (5,181 m) where the atmosphere is denser  and at which a human can survive, such as at mountain altitudes in the Andes and Himalayas. Whether he gave a thumbs up to a nearby chase plane is sensational but it would indicate that he was conscious and aware. With the parachute integrated into his test pilot suit, it was critical for Siebold to regain consciousness and unbuckle from his seat in order to give his parachute any chance of deploying. This is likely where the fate of the pilots differ.

Alsbury quite possibly was struck by debris or was injured by G forces and decompression more severely than Siebold. He either never regained consciousness or was somehow trapped in his seat and surrounding debris of the cabin. The circumstances for Siebold in his descent after the breakup were apparently fortuitous and gave him the chance to re-awaken and unbuckle. Comments in press reports from people around the incident or aware of the technology included that the pilots’ parachutes had automatic deployment mechanisms which activate at 10,000 feet (3048 m). In Alsbury’s or Siebold’s situation, without releasing themselves from their seats, the automatic deployment system would not have worked. If the chutes were to automatically deploy while the pilots were still strapped to their seats, the force from the deploying chute would have caused serious injury to the pilot. I’ve never jumped from a perfectly good flying airplane — as pilots often comment to jumpers — but I recall hearing that a deploying chute will knock a person on their backs with injury if they’re within 20 feet (6.1 meers) of it.

So, Siebold’s survival is miraculous or lucky, however you want to perceive it. For Michael Alsbury, godspeed. There are many factors that lead up to a powered test flight. Then, the moment — the rush of acceleration, the roar of the SpaceShipTwo engine — has some effect on the clarity of any pilot. NTSB analysis might reveal that the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) was also a factor in the actions that took place inside the cockpit. If only one of two necessary steps to execute the tail section’s feathering took place and yet it feathered, then again, something was beyond the control of the pilots.


National Post Story

Washington Post Story

Christian Science Monitor

Update: NTSB Confirms SpaceShipTwo feathering was Prematurely Unlocked

In a Monday afternoon press conference, acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart confirmed that the safety lock on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo feathering mechanism was prematurely unlocked moments before breakup. Hart also quickly stated that this would be the last on-site press conference. The NTSB is nearing the completion of data gathering and the team will be returning to Washington DC with the data to undertake the facts compilation followed by the analysis.

Hart reiterated that the test flight was rich in telemetry. He said that the supply of data could expedite the analysis but he cautioned that they still expect the investigation to take 12 months to conclude and release a final report. He also added that as analysis proceeds, the NTSB would provide updates and he encouraged interested parties including the public at-large to undertake analysis of the available data; however, he emphasized that the conclusions drawn would be based on NTSB analysis alone.

From the data released and statements by Hart during the press conference, it is now clear that the NTSB recognizes that the feathering was not to be deployed until SpaceShipTwo achieved mach 1.4. The statement that acting chairman Hart made appeared to be explicitly referencing the Flight Card – the plan of actions and constraints for the flight. If this was the specific wording on the Flight Card, then it would have permitted a pilot to interpret it in various ways.

Sunday, it was reported that SpaceShipTwo was flying at about Mach 1.2 when break up occurred. As a private pilot familiar with the impact that flight conditions have on operations of an aircraft, I would add that the SpaceShipTwo constraint of mach 1.4 for executing feathering is likely intended to be viewed by the pilots-in-control as the descent speed after SpaceShipTwo had achieved maximum altitude during a flight to the edge of the atmosphere. During descent, mach 1.4 would be achieved at a much higher altitude where the air density is much lower and stresses from the feathering would also be much lower; SpaceShipTwo is designed to feather with those environmental conditions. During previous tests of SpaceShipTwo when feathering was tested at low altitude, the vehicle was flying far below mach 1, i.e., subsonic. The vehicle in that flight regime had no difficulty withstanding stresses during the test of feathering. It should be emphasized that the strict rules under which the NTSB proceeds with an investigation do not allow the investigators to inject assumptions based on their past experience.

A timeline of events leading up to catastrophic breakup of SpaceShipTwo was stated by the NTSB acting chairman:

10:07:19: SpaceShipTwo is released from the carrier craft, WhiteKnightTwo
10:07:21  SpaceShipTwo’s engine starts
10:07:29  SpaceShipTwo reaches mach 0.94
10:07:31: SpaceShipTwo exceeds the speed of sound – mach 1.02. Between 10:07:29 and 10:07:31, the feathering safety was unlocked.

10:0 7:34: All telemetry was lost

The NTSB has also created a new team responsible for evaluating the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) on SpaceShipTwo. HMI is a discipline that has gained increased interest within several manufacturing sectors, particularly in aircraft cockpit design. The performance of modern aircraft, places greater demand on human performance. The formulation of a Human performance team evaluating the HMI of SpaceShipTwo indicates that the NTSB wants to assess the quality of the cockpit control panels and whether the configuration of switches contributed to pilot error.

While most of the debris is confined to a 5 mile swath of desert, Hart stated that debris has now been found as far as 30 to 35 miles from the immediate debris field.

Besides the apparent focus by the NTSB on the unplanned feathering, Hart stated that they are checking the subsystems of the spacecraft for integrity – pneumatics, flight control, electrical, and so on.

Hart concluded the press conference by taking questions from reporters.

Q. Had the pilot been interviewed?
A. Not yet and not until he is fit to be interviewed.

Q. Was the Flight Card reviewed?
A. The NTSB has reviewed the flight card for procedures and constraints.
According to Hart, the card stated not to release the safety lock of the feathering mechanism until mach 1.4. The Flight Card describes the steps that a flight crew is to take to complete a successful mission.
Q/A. Hart confirmed that 2 pilot actions were necessary for feathering. 1) Unlock the safety, and 2) engage feathering lever. U.T. – Hart could not say if both pilots were necessary, that is, shared the two step process.
Q/A. A reporter contentiously asked Hart who was in the right seat. Hart stated that he did not know and also was unwilling to assume that it was the co-pilot, Alsbury. The reporter probing him further asked about his statements from Sunday. Hart agreed that he was mistaken to have assumed on Sunday that it was the copilot.

Finally, a review of the NTSB press conference video, placed on YouTube, presented a clarification as text on video. It stated that the co-pilot was residing in the right seat and was responsible for unlocking the feathering. At this preliminary stage of the investigation, it would appear that Alsbury’s death in the accident was due to his premature unlocking of the feathering mechanism. Hart did not state this but the circumstantial evidence so far is pointing in that direction.


NTSB Press Conference Video, November 3, 2014

NTSB Discovers Possible Pilot Error in SpaceShipTwo Investigation

In a press conference at the Mojave Air and Sport Port Sunday evening, acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart revealed preliminary findings in the investigation of the  Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight accident. According to Hart, review of cockpit video during the flight showed that the co-pilot Michael Alsbury turned the tail feathering lock-unlock lever to the unlocked position too early. But Hart was quick to add that the NTSB has not concluded that this represents a cause and effect, and more analysis is necessary.

“I am not stating this was the cause of this mishap,” he said. “We have months and months of investigation to determine what the cause was.”

Feathering of the tail is an action taken during re-entry at high altitude in order to increase drag and accelerate the space vehicle’s descent. The apparently unscripted action by Alsbury was taken just seconds into the flight of SpaceShipTwo when the suborbital space vehicle had reached the speed of sound, Mach 1 in the denser atmosphere at roughly 50,000 feet. However, unlocking the feathering mechanism was not followed by the second step – moving of another lever which actually rotates the twin tail sections relative to the fuselage to increase the drag for the feathering, which is like a shuttlecock effect. Two seconds after Alsbury’s action and the feathering, SpaceShipTwo experienced a catastrophic breakup.

SpaceShipTwo is shown in the feathered configuration in an earlier unpowered test flight. While the test pilots tested the feathering in the lower, denser atmosphere, the vehicles was much slower and stresses on the vehicle remained well within safety margins. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo is shown in the feathered configuration in an earlier unpowered test flight. While the test pilots tested the feathering in the lower, denser atmosphere, the vehicles was flying much slower and stresses on the vehicle remained within safety margins. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Feathering of the twin tail section of SpaceShiptTwo requires the pilots to execute two steps. The co-pilot Alsbury executed the first step — unlocking. According to the NTSB investigators, the unlocking of the mechanism should not have been enough to cause the feathering during the ill-fated test flight. The lock-unlock mechanism represents a safety feature. The feathering should only occur after the pilot moves a second lever which is not unlike the lever in a conventional aircraft that lowers the landing flaps to increase lift, but as with feathering, at the expense of adding more drag.

Clearly this discovery by the NTSB is turning their focus away from the rocket engine which has posed so much difficulty for Scaled Composites project life cycle of SpaceShipTwo. The propulsion system has been primarily to blame for the delays which Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson has stated stands at five years; the project development now at the 10 year mark.

Discussions in the blogosphere involving aeronautic and propulsion experts and average citizens had quickly turned to criticism of the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor. However, review of the debris appeared to show the rocket motor intact. With this NTSB finding, there is likely to be a pause and change in the focus. However, if the NTSB investigation concludes that the feathering is the cause of the accident, this may not discharge the many concerns about safety of the SpaceShipTwo propulsion system design.

Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson responded harshly to the criticism of the propulsion system. “I’ve never seen such irresponsible innuendo and damaging innuendo,” he told Sky News television in the UK. “The fuel tanks and the engine were intact, showing there was no explosion, despite a lot of self-proclaimed experts saying that was the cause,” he said.

The SpaceShipTwo test flight accident occurred at 10:12 AM PDT on October 31st. One day later, NTSB agents had arrived in the Mojave desert to begin the investigation. During the first press conference, Hart stated that while the investigation is expected to last most of a year, he emphasized that the telemetry recorded during the flight was comprehensive and would be instrumental to uncovering a cause and effect.

The telemetry included several video recordings from the carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, from ground video cameras, and also from inside the cockpit. It is a review of the latter that showed the releasing of the feathering safety lock mechanism by Alsbury. Co-pilot Alsbury died as a result of vehicle’s breakup while the pilot, Peter Siebold, escaped or was thrown from the vehicle and parachuted to the ground. Siebold is in serious condition but conscious and speaking to family and attending physicians.

Another point of comparison between the feathering of the SpaceShipTwo tail section with conventional aircraft flaps is that flaps are given a maximum speed at which they can be safely deployed. Deployment at beyond the maximum speed risks severe mechanical stress to the airframe. The feathering that occurred during the test flight at Mach 1 and at the low altitude of the early phase of powered flight by SpaceShipTwo would also have caused sudden and severe stress and potentially the breakup of the vehicle.

NTSB’s Christopher Hart stated that a follow-up press conference would be held on Monday, November 3rd, and will provide more details regarding the NTSB discovery. Hart, during the Sunday press conference, reiterated that despite this early discovery, the investigation is still expected to take a year to conclude. Universe Today will follow with an update after the completion of the Monday press conference.

Update: One Survivor, One Fatality in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Flight Accident

Officials from Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have confirmed one of the pilots was killed and another was injured in a major anomaly during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo today (Friday, October 31). The names of the pilots have not yet been released. During a hastily-called press conference, officials said launch of the WhiteKnightTwo plane carrying SpaceShipTwo occurred at 9:20 am PDT this morning and at 10:10 am, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) was released for its test flight to the edge of the atmosphere and space. Two minutes into its flight, SpaceShipTwo encountered an anomaly. Officials had no immediate cause but the rocket motor is the first point of concern.

During the press conference, it was stated that the rocket motor called RocketMotorTwo (RM2) had itself been flown in four previous flights but this was the first flight of version 2 now using a nylon-type plastic called thermoplastic polyamide, replacing the rubber-based fuel used by SpaceShipOne; ultimately too problematic for the SS2 design. Participating in the press conference were executives Kevin Mickey, CEO of Scaled Composites, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and Stu Witt, chief executive of Mojave Air and Space Port. They emphasized that the nylon-based rocket fuel and engine had been thoroughly tested on the ground and they were confident of its readiness for in-flight testing.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight during test prior to release of the experimental space vehicle. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight during test prior to release of the experimental space vehicle. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Within seconds of release, SpaceShipTwo’s engine ignited for flight. Two minutes into the powered flight would have permitted considerable time for SpaceShipTwo to gain altitude and speed. The pilots were not wearing pressure suits, only masks providing supplemental oxygen. At 50,000 feet and more, conditions are equivalent to space, and fluids in the human body begin to boil – turn from liquid to gas. The velocity of the surrounding jetstream upon breakup or ejection would have caused loss of their masks and any oxygen possibly carried with them.

Scaled Composites did not state during the press conference at what altitude the accident occurred. Based on the time of the accident – 2 minutes into powered flight – the vehicle could have been anywhere from 40,000 feet (12 km) to as high as 200,000 feet (60 km). It is more likely that, for this first flight of the nylon-based propellant, the trajectory was left shallow or the full potential of the motor not tested.

SpaceShipTwo does not have ejection seats but is equipped with an escape hatch. The fuselage is fully pressurized for the pilots and planned paying customers. It is not yet determined if the test pilots escaped from the hatch or were thrown from the vehicle after its mid-air breakup.

It is standard practice for any test pilot in an experimental vehicle to be wearing a parachute. SpaceShipTwo would be no exception. Furthermore, being aware of the flight conditions and escaping from a vehicle at high altitude, the chutes very likely had automatic mechanisms to deploy, assuming unconsciousness.

The press conference did not provide further details. At noon time PST, it did not seem evident that the rescue teams knew the conditions of the crew. Rescue teams at the Mojave airport supporting Scaled Composites were prepared and were quickly dispatched. The debris field was located but some more time was required to find both test pilots.

“We do know one of the crew members was met by emergency responders, treated on the scene, and transported to Antelope Valley Hospital,” said Witt at the press conference. “We also know that we have one fatality.”

During the press conference, Scaled Composite and Virgin Galactic executives emphasized their grief and concern for the surviving pilot, the families and friends. The Mojave desert-based companies are a tight knit group and a loss is certainly extremely personal to every team member. The executives did also emphasize once again that “space is hard.” This was first stated by President Kennedy during his famous speech at Rice University. Those words were echoed earlier this week when Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds into flight and the leaders of lost payloads were also quick to state the same. The Scaled Composites expressed during the press conference that they remain determined and committed and now in honor of a fallen test pilot and another fighting for his life.

A SpaceShipTwo solid rocket motor is tested on a stand in the Mojave desert. Recent delays led Scaled Composites to swtich from a rubber-based fuel to one chemically similar to nylon. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
A SpaceShipTwo solid rocket motor is tested on a stand in the Mojave desert. Recent delays led Scaled Composites to swtich from a rubber-based fuel to one chemically similar to nylon. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Now a accident investigation begins. The FAA and NSTB will be involved. The investigation of this type of accident will takes months. For Scaled Composites who is effectively responsible and the owner of the flight systems will be analyzing their telemetry and are now forced to consider if the new rocket fuel is worthy of flight or whether they will turn to another solid fuel for SpaceShiptTwo. Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group including Galactic has stated that they are five years behind schedule and most of this is attributed to engine development troubles. Company executives stated during the press conference that Branson is expected in Mojave within 24 hours.

Correction: November 1, 2014

In the original article of October 31, 2014, released immediately after the first press conference in the aftermath of the fatal test flight accident, it was stated that the rocket engine in the test flight was using thermoset plastic similar to nylon. The article is now corrected. The rocket fuel of version 2 of RocketMotorTwo is a thermoplastic polyamide which is similar to nylon.

SpaceShipTwo Fires Rocket Engines for First Ever Supersonic Test Flight- Photos & Video

SpaceShipTwo fires her rocket motor in flight for 1st time on April 29, 2013. Credit:
Updated with more Photos & Video[/caption]

In a momentous and long awaited day in spaceflight, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) commercial spaceliner named “Enterprise” lit up her hybrid rocket engines in flight and reached supersonic speeds for the first time in history, today, Monday, April 29, 2013 – in the skies over the Mojave Desert in California.

“What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness Virgin Galactic go faster than the speed of sound,” wrote Virgin Galacic founder and owner, billionaire Sir Richard Branson, a short while ago.

Branson wants to bring the incomparable joys of human spaceflight– including weightlessness and spectacular views of the Earth’s curvature- to the masses. Thus making science fiction fantasies of the future like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Trek” a reality – TODAY!

“This is a momentous day and the single most important flight test to date for our Virgin Galactic program,” said Branson from the Mojave Air and Space Port. “What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness Virgin Galactic go faster than the speed of sound.”

ShaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic fires its rocket engines for the first time in history on April 29, 2013 to achieve supersonic speed. Credit: Virgin Galactic
ShaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic fires its rocket engines for the first time in history on April 29, 2013 to achieve supersonic speed. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The SpaceShipTwo test of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was conducted by builder Scaled Composites, led by famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, and Virgin Galactic.

With Scaled Composites test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury at the helm, the engine burn lasted about 16 seconds, exactly as planned and achieved a speed of Mach 1.2 – breaking the sound barrier!

Watch this video of today’s SS2 rocket test flight:

The test flight began at about 7:02 a.m. local California time as SpaceShipTwo took off from Mojave strapped to the belly of the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mothership.

SS2 was released from the mothership at an altitude of 47,000 feet (14 km) some 45 minutes into the flight.

“The pilots triggered ignition of the rocket motor, causing the main oxidizer valve to open and igniters to fire within the fuel case. At this point, SS2 was propelled forward and upward to a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet [17 km],” said Virgin Galactic in a statement.

SS2 is powered by RocketMotorTwo, developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation – which is also constructing the manned DreamChaser mini shuttle ‘space taxi’ under contract to NASA and aiming to restart launches of American astronauts from American soil to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

Boom camera shot of SpaceShipTwo breaking the sound barrier.  Credit: Virgin Galactic
Boom camera shot of SpaceShipTwo breaking the sound barrier. Credit: Virgin Galactic

“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Branson, who watched the flight from the grounds of Mojave.

The entire fight lasted about an hour with SS2 gliding back for a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port to conclude the history making flight.

Until today’s engine firing, the SS2/WK2 aerial test flight program had been limited to captive carry and landing drop tests.

Branson’s near term goal is for SpaceShipTwo to fly to space – commonly defined as 62 miles (100 km) altitude – for the first time before year’s end, validate the vehicle with a rigorous test flight program of gradually expanding the flight envelope to insure full operability and safety and then carry the first revenue paying passengers to space thereafter from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

Rumors that this rocket firing test flight was imminent had reached a fever pitch over the past few days, stoked by broad hints in open messages from Branson himself. So, a large group of Virgin employees and space enthusiasts were present today to witness the momentous event (see photos).

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee’s of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

In the not too distant future, the purpose of SS2 is for everyday folks – not just highly trained astronauts – to experience spaceflight and out of this world views of the Earth below and the heavens above.

Eventually, human spaceflight could be as commonplace as flying aboard a commercial jetliner is today.

SpaceShipTwo can carry 8 people total; including a crew of two pilots and six passengers on suborbital missions to space.

Although SS2 cannot go into Earth orbit, Branson hopes that future varients will achieve orbit.

Branson himself will fly aboard the first commercial SS2 flight. Over 500 people have already plucked down over $200,000 to reserve the unprecedented choice seats.

“Like our hundreds of customers from around the world, my children and I cannot wait to get on board this fantastic vehicle for our own trip to space and am delighted that today’s milestone brings that day much closer,” said Branson.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation quickly lauded the Virgin Galactic team and issued this statement:

“The Commercial Spaceflight Federation congratulates the team at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for the first powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo today,” said CSF President Michael Lopez-Alegria.

“This incredible achievement is the direct result of the hard work and dedication by these two companies, as well as by RocketMotorTwo developer Sierra Nevada Corporation. Because of their efforts, we are one step closer to achieving safe, routine, and cost-effective access to space that will create abundant opportunities for space-based research and that will inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. I applaud the team at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for their accomplishment, and the team at Mojave Air & Space Port for their efforts in creating a professional and safe testing environment.”

In this era of stingy federal funding and slashes to NASA’s budget, commercial spaceflight will play a major and increasing role in bringing down the high costs of access to space as well as enabling an expanding science exploration program and private commercial space exploitation programs to open up the High Frontier.

Other private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are already leading the charge with regards to the commercial space exploration race with their Falcon 9 and Antares commercial rockets – now launching crucial cargo for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) since the retirement of the Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011.

Ken Kremer