ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – In an interview with CBS This Morning on Monday, Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson said he’s confident in space tourism.
There’s been a lot of questions about that after the spaceship meant to send people from New Mexico into space fell apart midair.
Plans to launch people to space from southern New Mexico has been in the works for years, but one of the final test launches in Mojave, Calif., on Friday went terribly wrong.
“We need to know exactly what happened to make absolutely certain it can never happen again,” said Branson.
Branson has stated he hoped to launch from the spaceport in southern New Mexico by spring.
Now the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused SpaceShipTwo to break apart during a test flight over the Mojave Desert.
Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, while the pilot, Peter Siebold, is still in the hospital with serious injuries.
Nearly 800 people have paid the $250,000 ticket price for a thrill ride to space. Branson said on CBS This Morning on the day of the crash that two more people signed up and paid in full as a gesture of good will toward Virgin Galactic.
He says this crash will not put a stop to their plans for someday taking passengers to space on commercial flights. But when that day will come – at this point – is unclear.
“There’s incredible things that come out of a space program like this, and therefore, all of us are determined to continue and make sure that we learn from this and get it right,” Branson said.
Critics have questioned the state’s investment into the quarter-billion-dollar Spaceport near Truth or Consequences.
Coming up at 5:30 p.m., KRQE News 13 will ask lawmakers and Spaceport officials if they’re as optimistic as Virgin Galactic.
The Crash Investigation
In California, the investigation into the cause of the crash of the space plane SpaceShipTwo has shifted away from the hybrid rocket motor. Investigators from the NTSB now say it appears that instead, something went wrong in the controls of the space tourism prototype ship.
The NTSB has recovered all of SpaceShipTwo’s engine and fuel systems and says there is no evidence of any explosion.
“All were intact, showed no signs of burn-through. No signs of being breached,” said Christopher Hart, acting NTSB chairman.
The flight was the first for a new engine design and fuel and the new propulsion system was an initial suspect.
However, on-board cameras and telemetry now confirm that after SpaceShipTwo was dropped from its mother ship and ignited its engine, the twin tails of the space plane began to rotate on their own into a re-entry position, called ‘feathering.’ Normally the tail is only rotated into the feathered position after the rocket engine is turned off and when SpaceShipTwo is about to descend.
Feathering also requires two handles, also called levers, to be moved in the cockpit: First, an unlock handle, and then the feather handle itself.
“The feathers moved toward the extended position, the deployed position, even though the feather handle itself had not been moved,” said Hart.
On the accident flight, the NTSB says the first handle, the unlock handle, was moved by the co-pilot before it was supposed to be, but feathering still should not have occurred.
“This was an uncommanded, what we would call an uncommanded feather, which means the feather occurred without the feather lever being moved into the feather position,” Hart said.
He said the movement of the unlock lever was supposed to be done at 1.4 times the speed of sound, or Mach 1.4. Instead, the co-pilot unlocked it at Mach 1.0.
Hart reiterated that the second lever, the feather lever designed to activate the tail movement, was never moved by either pilot.
The space plane began to break up just two seconds after the unlock lever was moved and the tail began its un-commanded rotation.
SpaceShipTwo does not have any ejection seats. The body of 39-year-old co-pilot Alsbury was found in the wreckage. Siebold, the 43-year-old pilot, descended by parachute. He is reported to be alert and talking to family and doctors in the hospital.
The NTSB is waiting for Siebold to recover enough before interviewing him. Meanwhile, Chairman Hart emphasized that his agency has still not yet determined what caused the accident.
“We have months and months of investigation to determine what the cause was,” he said.
Hart said subjects will include training, whether there was pressure to continue testing, safety culture, space plane design, operating procedures and any possibility of pilot error.