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NTSB Accident Investigation of SpaceShipTwo Could Take a Year to Complete Analysis

By Marc Boucher
November 4, 2014
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NTSB Accident Investigation of SpaceShipTwo Could Take a Year to Complete Analysis
File photo: SpaceShipTwo in flight.
Virgin Galactic

In their last press briefing from Mojave, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released no new clues to the cause of the breakup of SpaceShipTwo. The NTSB did provide new timeline details and an update of what they’ve been doing. Further press briefings will take place from Washington as needed.
Here’s the timeline. All times Pacific:

– 10:07:19 am: SpaceShipTwo is released from the mothership.

– 10:07:21: The engine starts.

– 10:07:29: SpaceShipTwo is travelling at Mach 0.94.

– 10:07:31: SpaceShipTwo is now at Mach 1.02. Between 10:07:29 and 10:07:31 the feather switch is unlocked by the co-pilot but not activated by either pilot.

– 10:07:34 Telemetry and video are lost. Between the time the feather switch is unlocked and loss of telemetry, the feather system activates.

With respect to the remains of SpaceShipTwo, work has begun to move parts that warrant further analysis to a hangar while the remainder of the debris is also being collected. The debris field is now upwards of 56 km (35 miles) instead of the original 8 km (5 miles) with small parts being found northeast of the main crash site.

Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said that the NTSB was continuing “to review the numerous data sources. This was a test flight and as a result of that, it was rich with numerous data sources and we’re now in the process of converting many of those data sources to forms we can take back with us to continue our analysis of them in our lab in Washington, DC.”

They’ve also began checking spacecraft systems and continued interviews which are almost complete, though they’ve yet had an opportunity to interview the pilot Peter Siebold.

They have also created a new Human Performance Group to look at the human systems interface between the flight crew and the vehicle. This will be to look at the issues such as displays, check list design and other issues related to the interface between the flight crew and the vehicle.

The investigation will take several months with the NTSB working with Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and all those involved to complete the factual development portion of the investigation. At that point the investigation will move into the analysis portion where the NTSB will work alone to provide its independent analysis. They will however put the factual evidence on their website and the public is invited to submit their own analysis, though only the NTSB analysis will be official.

While the investigation could move quickly because of the numerous data sources available, it could be up to a year before their final analysis is released with a probable cause determination and recommendations to prevent an accident like this happening again.

Virgin Galactic does not have another spacecraft ready for testing. The successor to SpaceShipTwo is currently under construction. It seems unlikely that this spacecraft will fly anytime soon and perhaps not until after the NTSB has released its analysis and
the probable cause determination.

Richard Branson in his remarks at this past Saturday’s press briefing said “we are going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance, and then move forwards together.”

For those hoping to fly on Virgin Galactic in 2015 the chances seem slim. Perhaps 2016 will be the year public flights begin.

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.