Spaceship broke apart after system designed to slow descent deployed too soon

An experimental rocket ship broke apart in flight over California’s Mojave Desert after a device to slow the space plane’s descent deployed too soon, federal investigators said.

LOS ANGELES — An experimental rocket ship broke apart in flight over California’s Mojave Desert after a device to slow the space plane’s descent deployed too soon, federal investigators said.

The cause of Friday’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has not been determined, but investigators found the “feathering” system — which rotates the twin tail “feathers” to create drag — was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed, National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said.

The system requires a two-step process to deploy. The co-pilot unlocked the system, but Hart said the second step occurred “without being commanded.”

“What we know is that after it was unlocked, the feathers moved into the deploy position, and two seconds later, we saw disintegration,” Hart said.

The finding moves away from initial speculation that an explosion brought down the craft.

The investigation is months from being completed, and officials are looking at factors that include pilot error, mechanical failure, design problems and whether pressure existed to continue testing, Hart said.

“We are not edging toward anything. We’re not ruling anything out,” he said. “We are looking at all these issues to determine the root cause of this accident.”

The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash. Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted to the ground and is hospitalized with injuries.

Investigators have not interviewed Siebold because of his condition, Hart said.

Virgin Galactic — owned by billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — plans to fly up to six passengers at a time more than 62 miles above Earth, where they can experience weightlessness. The company sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000.

Branson told Sky News on Monday that the company will move forward despite the crash. He said there would be a “whole massive series of test flights” before any trips are made.

He still plans to be on the maiden voyage, with his family.

“We need to be absolutely certain our spaceship has been thoroughly tested — and that it will be — and once it’s thoroughly tested, and we can go to space, we will go to space,” Branson said.

“We must push on. There are incredible things that can happen through mankind being able to explore space properly,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo tore apart Friday about 11 seconds after it detached from the underside of its jet-powered mother ship and fired its rocket engine for the test flight. Initial speculation was that an explosion occurred, but the fuel and oxidizer tanks and rocket engine showed no sign of being burned or breached, the NTSB said.

The feathering system is a feature unique to the craft to help it slow as it re-enters the atmosphere. After being unlocked, a lever must be pulled to rotate the twin feathers toward a nearly vertical position to act as a brake. After decelerating, the pilots reconfigure the feathers to their normal position so the craft can glide to Earth.

A review of footage from a camera mounted to the ceiling of the spaceship’s cockpit showed the co-pilot moving the feathering lever to the unlock position, Hart said.

The feathers activated at Mach 1.0, the speed of sound, or 760 mph, Hart said. They should not have deployed until the craft had reached a speed of at least Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000 mph.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides issued a statement Sunday to tamp down on conjecture about the cause of the crash.

“Now is the time to focus on all those affected by this tragic accident and to work with the experts at the NTSB, to get to the bottom of what happened on that tragic day, and to learn from it so that we can move forward safely with this important mission,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development for years and has seen setbacks. In 2007, an explosion killed three people and critically injured three others during a ground test in the development of a rocket engine.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Alberta says it won’t give out more first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for the time being.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Alberta to stop giving first doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot as supply dwindles

OTTAWA — Alberta says it won’t give out more first doses of… Continue reading

A Suncor logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Suncor Energy and Atco working together on potential hydrogen project

Atco would construct and operate pipeline and hydrogen storage facilities

Colonial Pipeline joue un rôle de premier plan dans le transport de l’essence, du kérosène, du diésel et d’autres produits pétroliers du Texas vers la côte Est.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Pipeline officials hope most service will be back by weekend

Colonial Pipeline delivers about 45 per cent of the fuel consumed on East Coast

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Denis Shapovalov, of Canada, tosses the ball for a serve to Ilya Ivashka, of Belarus, during the Miami Open tennis tournament Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
Canadian Denis Shapovalov books spot in second round of Italian Open

Shapovalov to face world Stefano Travaglia, of Italy

This picture provided and painted by Bob Dylan in 2020 is called “New York Subways”. The largest collection of Bob Dylan’s artwork ever seen will go on display later this year in the U.S. “Retrospectum” spans six decades of Dylan’s art, featuring more than 120 of the artist’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. Building on the original “Retrospectum” exhibition that premiered in Shanghai, China, in 2019, the new version will include new, never-before-seen pieces and additional artworks from a brand-new series called “American Pastoral.” (Bob Dylan via AP)
Bob Dylan artwork to go on display in the U.S. this year

‘Retrospectrum’ spans six decades of Dylan’s art

FILE - Seth Rogen appears at the “Motherless Brooklyn” premiere in Los Angeles on Oct. 28, 2019. Rogen is the latest to jump into the podcast world. He’s making a series for the Stitcher podcast company where he interviews people with unusual stories to tell. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)
Actor Seth Rogen to tell stories in his own Stitcher podcast

Rogen to invite musicians, actors and comedians

Vancouver Canucks’ Nils Hoglander (36) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Monday May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Edmonton Oilers' Dominik Kahun (21) celebrates with teammate Connor McDavid (97) after scoring the third goal against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen (34) during second-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Rory McIlroy tees off on the fourth hole during the fourth round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

Canada , left to right, lead Briane Meilleur, third Val Sweeting, skip Kerri Einarson, and second Shannon Birchard discuss strategy against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. Both of Canada's teams were shut out of the medals, marking the first time ever that Canada did not reach the podium at either the men's or women's worlds in the same season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Most Read