Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted a powered test flight on Oct. 31, which resulted in tragedy, according to the official website. After breaking the sound barrier and quite literally reaching for the stars, SpaceSpaceTwo quickly began to disintegrate.
SpaceShipTwo broke apart and started disintegrating mere seconds after igniting its rocket engine for a test run above California, severely injuring pilot Peter Siebold and killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury. The test run was originally intended to be part of a larger project that would eventually culminate into a commercial passenger service to sub-orbital space, hopefully to be introduced next year.
Siebold, who had already been flying Virgin Galactic’s spaceships for a decade, had to rely on his own experience and instincts to survive, according to the Los Angeles Times. He had a parachute, but no spacesuit to protect him from the harsh environment as he plummeted to Earth. His landing in the Mojave Desert smashed his shoulder, and he was discharged from the hospital on Nov. 3.
SpaceShipTwo pilots wear only thin flight jumpsuits, which offer little protection against the frigid atmosphere–a decision made by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed the predecessor SpaceShipOne. The craft was made by winding fibers into a strong pressure vessels, and Rutan wanted smaller hatches to preserve the craft’s strength. This left no room for large spacesuits.
Christopher Hart, the acting chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), revealed to the BBC that the vehicle’s descent system was activated prematurely–a system meant to slow and orient the vehicle on its return to Earth. This technology was not meant to be activated so early on in the flight and should not have engaged in an accelerating ascent.
“At Virgin Galactic, safety is our guiding principle and the North Star for all programmatic decisions,” said Virgin Galactic’s official statement. “Our culture is one of prioritizing safety as the most important factor in every element of our work, and any suggestions to the contrary are untrue. We are committed to learning from this incident and ensuring something like this can never happen again. To that end, we will work closely with the NTSB and will focus intense effort on its findings and guidance.”
Virgin Galactic is striving to learn from this incident and to move toward making the dream of commercial space exploration a reality. According to the official site, another SpaceShipTwo is currently in development.
“For Virgin Galactic, everything rests on our vision of creating accessible and democratized space that will benefit humanity in countless ways for the generations to come,” said the official statement. “Like early air or sea technologies, the development is not easy and comes with great risks, but our team of more than 400 dedicated engineers and technicians are committed to realizing the potential of this endeavor. From research, to travel, to innovation, we believe that the technology our industry is pioneering is crucial to the advancement of humanity.”