It was ominous that darkness would visit the Virgin Galactic space program on Halloween, of all days, last year. While it was certainly not ghosts and goblins at fault, the new year has brought both a metaphorical and very literal fresh start for the privately-owned fledgling space flight program. With new insight, an internal shift in testing and an eye towards the mistakes of the past- Virgin Galactic looks to re-ignite the excitement that captured not only the scientific community but the public as well with more flights this year.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the accident that derailed the testing of the first flights in the series of passenger space plane that was planned. On October 31, 2014 a test flight was being conducted by outside manufacturer Scaled Composites. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who did not survive the accident, is reported to have released the ship’s moveable tail section early. Due to this human error, the vehicle had not yet attained proper speed to pin the “feather” in place as the design is built upon. This caused massive turbulence and tore the ship apart, but not before jettisoning pilot Pete Siebold, who managed to survive the incident via his parachute – jeopardizing the space travel program altogether.
Virgin Galactic has been working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board to complete the ongoing investigation to turn that corner by making sure that mistakes will not be repeated and procedures are put in place to ensure that the test flights can carry on accident free.
One major change that will be occurring when testing resumes is that the Virgin Galactic operations team will be taking over test flights from here on out. Rather than farming them out to the manufacturer, Scaled Composites. They hope to keep a tighter reign on the testing by keeping it in-house and building upon feedback from the NTSB. Virgin has built it’s own team to head up testing including Doug Shane (previously of Scaled Composites); Mike Moses, NASA’s former space shuttle launch integration manager; and Todd Ericson, the former chief of safety for the U.S. Air Force Test Center and one from the pool o four Virgin Galactic pilots. The rest of the team will be built from a team of experienced military test pilots as well as NASA space shuttle commander, Frederick “Rick” Sturckow, who has a pedigree that includes 4 space a travel.
Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech 2015 conference in Orlando, “Our test flight accident in October of last year was really the toughest thing that our business could undergo,” he continued. “Today, nine weeks after this fairly traumatic event, our company is turning the corner and looking to the future.”
The second space plane, SpaceShip Two, was already nearly completed at the time of the crash- which has certainly allowed for a quicker turnaround than otherwise possible. This ship was under construction by the firm The Spaceship Company- a Virgin owned manufacturing company. As of this writing, the structural fabrication of the second plane is over 90%- with two-thirds of the plane’s systems as well. The construction schedule has been made flexible to allow for any modifications that might come down from the NTSB investigation, as the build starts its final leg.
“We’re committed to making any modifications or improvements that we feel are necessary to improve the safety of the spaceship,” Whitesides said. “Because we made the investments required to begin building this vehicle years ago, our return to flight is closer than might otherwise have been expected,” he added.
What makes this comeback all the more incredible is how close Virgin, and founder Sir Richard Branson, came to actually shutting down the space flight project.
Branson commented, “I found myself questioning seriously for the first time, whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances. In short — was Virgin Galactic and everything it has stood for and dreamt of achieving, really worth it?
“I got a very firm answer to that question immediately when I landed in Mojave. From the designers, the builders, the engineers, the pilots and the whole community who passionately believed — and still believe — that truly opening space travel and making it accessible and safe is of vital importance to all our futures.”
WIth the renewed support from both the team as well as Branson and Virgin backers, the future continues to look bright for Virgin Galactic as test flights resume. Certainly the tragic accident doesn’t seem to have affected the pool of 700 people that have either a deposit down or have paid the entire $250,000 for the opportunity of a lifetime- a chance for space travel.