SpaceShipTwo accident report released

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The National Transportation Safety Board today released the results of its investigation into last year’s SpaceShipTwo crash, concluding that the accident was caused by pilot error combined with the failure of the ship’s designers to include systems that could have prevented that error.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday that the developer of a commercial spacecraft that broke apart over the Mojave Desert last year failed to protect against the possibility of human error, specifically the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of a braking system that triggered the in-flight breakup of the vehicle.

In its recommendation, the board took pains to make clear that Scaled Composites, an aerospace company that has partnered with Virgin Galactic to develop the spacecraft, should have had systems in place to overcome the co-pilot’s mistake. NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said he didn’t believe the company took shortcuts that compromised the spacecraft’s safety. Rather, he said, it didn’t consider that the crew would make such a mistake. “The assumption was these highly trained test pilots would not make mistakes in those areas, but truth be told, humans are humans,” Hart said after the hearing’s conclusion. “And even the best-trained human on their best day can make mistakes.”

This really isn’t news. This was the conclusion reached only weeks after the accident. It also does little to ease the problems at Virgin Galactic.


  • David M. Cook

    It would seem there is a big difference between “unlocking” a system and “activating” it. Looks like the co-pilot made an assumption he shouldn’t have, and the designer(s) also made an assumption, which they should never have made.

    It always takes a chain of mistakes to cause a disaster, not just one single item.

  • pzatchok

    Supposedly the wings were not intended to be deployed while under thrust or in atmosphere.

    You would think that instead of relying on a pilots perfection they would instead of rely on a safety system or two.
    Such as a altitude activated lock to that if any atmospheric pressure is noticeable then the wings are locked. AS soon a vacuum is detected the wings get unlocked.

    Plus they can add a mechanical thrust detection system so that if the rockets are on the wings are locked.

    Or they could have slightly redesigned the wings so that if they did become unlocked in atmosphere they would naturally want to stay in a natural flight configuration instead of trying to swing up into the feather shape.(remove the lift on the back horizontal stabilizers.)

  • joe

    I would have thought that the development of this craft would have been further along that it was considering that Richard Branson wanted to put paying customers in it. I wonder if Scaled Composit signed off on this or if they abandoned the project, I do not see Burt Rutan making these kinds of mistakes, seems like things happened after his retirement. I do think that this is the nature of development in highly experimental aircraft, so many situations that cant be modeled.

  • pzatchok

    Rutan got out of this a long long time ago.

  • Chops

    Other reports have suggested no written checklist (find that hard to believe) and that the flight manual the pilots study had no mention of the implications of unlocking the brake (feathering) mechanism. Maybe some additional contributing factors beyond “humans are humans”.

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