On October 31, 2014, the challenge of developing a commercial space program became all too apparent. Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, VSS Enterprise, disintegrated after the unique wing feather system was accidentally deployed by the pilot during its acceleration phase.
The resulting 9G force was too much for the structure, causing a catastrophic failure and the death of experienced test pilot, Michael Alsbury. This was the first in–flight space craft fatality since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Up to this point, the Virgin Galactic program was seen by many as a public relations spectacle. Each new development was not about the technology or engineering, but the latest celebrity to join the team of “Future Astronauts”.
Space is hard – but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together.
~ Sir Richard Branson
In the immediate aftermath, the cause of the accident was highly speculated, with rocket engine failure most often cited. As one of those fortunate enough to attend the 2014 Warren Centre Innovation Lecture, I took a very different view; one that would provide an entirely different perspective in the media storm that followed the October crash.
Some nine months later the NTSB investigation pointed to a combination of factors including pilot error, with no indication of rocket failure. The premature triggering of the spacecraft’s unique feathering system set off a catastrophic chain of events that breached the integrity of the carbon structure causing the vehicle to disintegrate.
The Warren Centre’s 2014 Innovation Lecture was presented by the VP of Operations for The Spaceship Company, Enrico Palermo. For over an hour attendees sat riveted as they came to understand the challenges and opportunities of space program development and the work of The Spaceship Company in delivering the Virgin Galactic fleet.
The unique carbon fibre of the VSS Enterprise presented a new frontier for composites and a chance for lighter, faster spacecraft. But it was also an all–or–nothing option. Enrico explained that the carbon structure was very strong if the integrity remained; any breach compromised the structure in its entirety.
The audience also heard how the rocket test for the fuel combination and system used in VSS Enterprise had been tested and proven. This was not the main risk as far as the engineering team were concerned. We watched spine tingling videos marking each milestone in the program’s development and heard how the opportunity for anyone to see earth from space was becoming a reality.
On the morning of October 31, 2014, I awoke to the news of the VSS Enterprise crash. You could not jump to the conclusion that the rocket had exploded after being educated as to the complexities of these spacecraft. I understood the important role of the test pilot and felt for the entire team in Mojave.
The Innovation Lecture provides the context, complexities and the process behind every new innovation and endeavour to see the world from a new and exciting point of view.
Image: Sunset over Gulf of Mexico by NASA / public domain