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01 November 2014

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo NTSB accident investigation

The NTSB is leading the investigation into yesterday's crash of Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo north of Mojave, CA. Saturday November 1st was the first day of the investigation, and the NTSB has already had one one media briefing with a second planned for late in the evening.

The following is an overview of the crash and comments on the early media briefings.

31 October 2014; Scaled Composites; Model 339 (SpaceShipTwo); N339SS; near Cantil, CA: The vehicle, which is designed to fly into the lower reaches of space (above 100 km above Earth) was on its first powered test flight with a new engine fuel and oxidizer combination (nylon and nitrous oxide). SpaceShipTwo was dropped from its carrier vehicle at about 45,000 feet, and ignited its engine.

Roughly two minutes after release from the carrier aircraft White Knight Two, the SpaceShipTwo vehicle experienced an inflight breakup. One of the two crew members was killed, and the other was able to bail out of the vehicle and was injured.

Prior to the accident flight, there had been the 54 test flights of SpaceShipTwo, of which 34 involved a release from the carrier aircraft, including three powered flights.

Scaled Composites, which conducted the flight test, is a partner of Virgin Galactic, which had planned on using SpaceShipTwo to take passengers on suborbital trips into space in the near future.

Summary of first two NTSB briefings on 1 November 2014
Both NTSB briefing were given by acting NTSB chair Christopher A. Hart, was short, and provided the following preliminary information about the accident:

  • While the NTSB has previously participated in the investigations of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle accidents, this will be the first time it has taken the lead role in the investigation of a crewed space launch vehicle accident.
  • The NTSB team consists of about 13-15 investigators and specialists in the areas of structures, including systems, engines, vehicle, performance, and operations.
  • The parties to the investigation are the FAA, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic
  • The vehicle was flying in a southwesterly direction, and the wreckage field is about five miles (8 km) long, and is oriented from the northeast to the southwest.
  • The wreckage pattern indicates that an inflight breakup occurred, but the NTSB has not yet determined why this happened.
  • The left and right tail booms were near the beginning of the wreckage trail, followed by the fuselage, fuel and oxidizer tanks, cockpit, and the rocket engine.
  • There were a total of three tanks in the vehicle, a fuel tank, an oxidizer tank, and a methane tank.
  • The NTSB was unaware of the altitude of the mishap.
  • There was extensive video data available from the flight, including six cameras on SpaceShipTwo, another three on White Knight Two, one in a chase aircraft, and one on the Edwards AFB test range.
  • The NTSB does not know if the six cameras on board SpaceShipTwo have been recovered.
  • There were six data sources on SpaceShipTwo and about 1000 parameters of telemetry available from the flight. There was also a radar on the chase aircraft.
  • Interviews have been conducted, but NTSB will not reveal what has been discovered until later in the investigation.
  • The surviving pilot has not yet been interviewed because his doctors recommended against doing so at this time.
  • The NTSB does not know how the surviving pilot exited the vehicle.
  • The on scene portion of the investigation will continue for another four to seven days, and the full investigation will take about a year.
  • Scaled Composites can continue operations during the investigation.
  • News and updates to the investigation will be available at the NTSB's web site ( Twitter feed (@NTSB).

Initial SpaceShipTwo NTSB briefings

Initial NTSB SpaceShipTwo briefings 1 November 2014

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