Early investigations into the last week’s crash of Virgin Galactic spaceship reveal that an improper co-pilot command preceded in-flight breakup of the rocket when movable tail surfaces deployed prematurely. The “feathering” function which helps the spaceship descend into the atmosphere from space was deployed early, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Sunday.
SpaceShipTwo’s rotating tail boom, a key safety feature for re-entering the atmosphere, inadvertently rotated early, said Christopher Hart, the acting chairman of the NTSB.
The test flight of the billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson owned space tourism venture had crashed into the Mojave Desert in California, killing the co-pilot and while severely injuring another pilot.
Virgin Galactic is a U.S. offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group founded by Branson, whose empire ranges from airlines to music stores and mobiles phones.
The sequence of events released by the NTSB indicates that the rocket ship separated normally from its carrier and the propulsion system worked normally until the tail surfaces, called feathers, deployed.
Wreckage of Virgin Galactic owned SpaceShipTwo over Mojave Desert in California
Hart told a news conference late on Sunday investigators had determined the “feathering” system should have been deployed when the vehicle was traveling about 1.4 times the speed of sound. Instead, the feather began rotating when the vehicle was traveling at Mach 1, he said.
The system, which folds the vehicle in half to create more atmospheric drag, was unlocked early by the co-pilot but a second command to move the feather handle into position was not sent, he said.
Investigators also recovered SpaceShipTwo’s propellant tanks and engine intact, indicating there was no explosion.
“The engine burn was normal up until the extension of the feathers,” Hart told reporters.
He emphasized that the NTSB was not saying the early deployment of the ship’s feather was the cause of the accident and stressed that the investigation was in its earliest stages.
“We have months and months of investigation,” Hart said.
The spacecraft named SpaceShipTwo was on a test flight and had not been certified for commercial operations at the time of the crash. Branson, along with his son, is supposed to be aboard the first commercial flight- whenever that happens. Other than that, 800 others have been booked for the ride which will cost $250,000. The list of those booked reads like the cast of a top Hollywood movie.