Virgin Galactic, a British spaceflight company within the Virgin Group, aims to commercialize spaceflight for everyday people. Richard Branson, an English billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group is actively promoting his commercial spaceships, but there have been several setbacks in the 10 years that the company has been around. On October 31 of this year, the SpaceShip Two, Virgin’s primary rocket plane, crashed over Mojave, California, in an accident that resulted in the death of one pilot and the serious injury of another.
The SpaceShip Two was designed to be carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a specialized carrier plane called the White Knight. At this point the SpaceShip Two would deploy its engine and climb to an altitude of 360,000 feet at 2,500 mph. Those aboard the ship would then experience weightlessness for roughly five minutes before descending back to earth and gliding into the Mojave Space Port. The entire trip would take approximately two hours. But during its test flight the SpaceShip Two was torn apart just moments after being deployed from the White Knight.
Currently, the crash is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. So far the NTSB have concluded that the surviving pilot, Peter Siebold, was unaware that his co-pilot, Mike Alsbury, had unlocked the “feathering system” that consists of two tail sections that are designed to pivot upward during the re-entry of the atmosphere to ease descent of the craft. But unlocking the tail section itself should not have been enough to cause the “feathers” to activate. The system must be unlocked first by the pilots, and then the feathers afterwards, similar to how the safety on a gun must be disengaged and then the trigger must be pulled.
With the feathers unlocked prematurely, the atmospheric forces acting upon them and then aircraft itself caused the SpaceShip Two to break apart. Because of the high altitude and incredible speeds, both pilots lost consciousness when the pressurized cabin was torn to pieces. Siebold was able to unbuckle himself from his seat and fortunately ripped out of the aircraft as it disintegrated around him. His parachute deployed automatically and he regained consciousness halfway through his slow decent to the ground.
This has led to scrutiny of Virgin Galactic as the crash seemed to have resulted from mechanical error. Regardless, they have stated that they wish to continue with their space venture. The company admitted that several of its roughly 700 customers, who paid deposits of $200,000 to reserve seats on the flights, have already asked for refunds after the crash.