Virgin Galactic Crash: NTSB Scrutinizes Pilots' Actions

Days after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has formed a “human performance” team to scrutinize the interaction between the pilots and the spacecraft. On Sunday, the NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said that pilot error can’t be ruled out. The human performance group will take a closer look at the possibility of pilot error as a cause of the crash.


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Alsbury deployed the feathering system early

Previous investigations have revealed that co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, had prematurely deployed the feathering system that helps the vehicle descend into the atmosphere. Early deployment of the system could have played a role in last week’s crash. Virgin Galactic’s experimental spaceship crashed near Mojave Desert in California on Friday. Co-pilot Peter Siebold parachuted from the spacecraft, and sustained serious injuries.

SpaceShipTwo crashed just a few seconds after the deployment of the feathering system. It was part of  billionaire Richard Branson-owned Virgin Galactic’s program to launch a commercial passenger service to space by next year. More than 800 people have already signed up for the spaceflight that costs $250,000. However, the program has been delayed indefinitely after the crash. Parts of the ill-fated rocket plane were recovered from as far as 36 miles away from the crash site.

Virgin Galactic to continue its space venture

The NTSB has obtained footage from the spacecraft’s cockpit that showed Alsbury prematurely unlocking the aerodynamic control lever. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo detached from its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo at 10:07:19 U.S. Pacific Time. A couple of seconds later at 10:07:21, the spacecraft’s hybrid rocket motor was ignited.

At 10:07:29, it was traveling at Mach 0.94 (that means slightly less than the speed of sound). Two seconds later into the flight, it increased the speed to Mach 1.02. Alsbury unlocked the feathering system during the period between Mach 0.94 and Mach 1.02. However, pilots are not allowed to unlock the system until the ship had attained the speed of Mach 1.4. At 10:07:34, the camera and telemetry stopped, suggesting that the plane had broken up.

Virgin Galactic said in a statement that it would fully co-operate with the NTSB in investigations. The company said that it would continue its space program.