Hubris brings down another spacecraft


spaceship two crash

Virgin Galactic joins the club.

The United States has suffered the loss of two orbiters and crews- Challenger and Columbia. Both were most likely avoidable.

The Challenger was lost in 1987 when politics overruled safety and it launched in weather far too cold, which impaired the ability of the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters to function as designed.

The arguments made by managers over the voices of the engineers was appalling:

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn’t hide his disdain. “My God, Thiokol,” he said. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”


In 2003 the orbiter Columbia broke up upon re-rentry consequent to a hole in the leading edge of a wing. The orbiter fought bravely to maintain course right up to the instant of disintegration.

The hole had been caused by a piece of foam insulation flying off of the attached liquid fuel tank. Engineers sought a satellite examination of the wings of the orbiter but NASA refused.


This week Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two exploded shortly after release from White Knight Two. One pilot was killed. What caught my eye was this key sentence:

SpaceShipTwo was testing a new plastic-based rocket fuel for the first time Friday.

People were launched on a flight with a new fuel being used for the first time.


Human-rating certification

Human-rated or man-rated are terms used to describe the certification of a spacecraft, launch vehicle or airplane[not verified in body] as worthy of transporting humans. NASA and the U.S. GAO now use “Human-rating” when describing requirements for these systems. The terms “man-rated” and “human-rated” are mostly used interchangeably.

In spaceflight, a human-rating certification is the assurance that the space system accommodates human needs, effectively utilizes human capabilities, controls hazards with sufficient certainty to be considered safe for human operations, and provides, to the maximum extent practical, the capability to safely recover the crew from hazardous situations.[1] In the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has published NASA Procedural Requirement NPR 8705.2B – Human Rating Requirements for Space Systems, defining the certification process and a set of technical requirements to be applied to its crewed space systems in addition to the standards and requirements that are mandatory for all of NASA’s space flight programs.[1]

You just don’t send people to fly on vehicles with fuels that are not man-rated. You don’t send men on a flight with a new fuel that had not been previously tested. It’s reckless. Problem is, it’s not the first time Virgin has gambled:

It was not the first time Virgin pushed limits to get into space. A new biography about SpaceShipTwo’s patron, Richard Branson, by investigative journalist Tom Bower makes that clear. Rocket engineers Geoff Daly and Caroline Campbell were critical of one of the components of the original rubber-based fuel: nitrous oxide. Campbell warned: “Nitrous oxide can explode on its own.” Another toxic component of the fuel was hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, a form of rubber. Campbell said that when the engine ran there was “so much soot coming out the back, burning rubber, that it could be carcinogenic.”

In 2007, the unattached rocket engine using that fuel was being tested on the ground in the Mojave desert when it exploded and killed three of 40 engineers observing the test. Investigators found that safety regulations at the site had been violated and that the men killed had been too close to the rocket motor.

Ginned up by celebrity enthusiasm, the public had once again lost sight of the stark reality- this is dangerous business and hubris can kill you in an instant.

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Years ago the Concorde SST from Paris to NY hit a small piece of debris (17″ by 1&1/2″ ) on the runway on takeoff and blew up.
That ended the entire SST Concorde business that allowed people to see the curvature of earth and cross the pond at record speeds. (2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds)
So, small bad things can be very big in aviation.
In one day Richard Branson lost $500 million.
He was literally being held up by another man when he took a few questions and tried to put on a brave face.
But that’s a big hit.
He is allowing everyone who wants to a total refund for pre-paid tickets on this space craft.
That’s going to be another big hit.
If Continental couldn’t absorb a Concorde crash and keep flying those beauties, how can Branson continue this folly?
Sure, maybe someday, we might get regular folks into space as tourists, but not with the environmental constraints we put on ourselves these days.

While I do not disagree with the main theme of your article I’ve read in many reports that the fuel HAD been tested many times prior to the launch. It was the first launch involving humans but that doesn’t mean it was the first time that particular mix of fuel was being used. In fact, it was not. The mix had been tested without incident. This was a tragic accident. Whether or not it involved hubris and whether or not it could have been avoided probably remains to be seen.

Dr j if you bothered to check they had run quite a few tests on that fuel

I don’t think the type of people who brought tickets in the first place, are going to be the type to cash them in just because of this…

@John: Evidently John, they had not TESTED IT

The new fuel (burning a plastic tank by igniting laughing gas as it passes through it) was to burn for between 55 and 60 seconds for the craft to reach ”space,” so the passengers can be called ”astronauts.”
BUT this fuel/tank combo caught the entire craft on fire after only 12 to 20 seconds.
So, back to the drawing boards.

Dr j. It wasn’t a fuel or engine related problem
It was in the flight control system
You are always jumping to conclusions before the facts are in just like EBOLAGHAZZI!!!

Another thing that went wrong:
A safety device on the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that crashed on Friday killing a test pilot had been deployed early, US investigators say.

Air safety chief Christopher Hart said the “feathering” device, designed to slow the craft on re-entry, activated without a command from the pilots.

In normal flight, the feathering device is deployed when the ship has reached its highest altitude, after the spaceship has broken through the atmosphere. The twin tailbooms on the craft are rotated 90 degrees, from the horizontal to the vertical.

US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that the feathering device was supposed to be activated at Mach 1.4 (1,065mph; 1,715km/h), but had been deployed at Mach 1 during the test flight.

All this caused another thing to go wrong:
$400m in funding from Abu Dhabi now dried up.


I’m reading now that it might have been pilot error and not an automation glitch.

A lock-unlock lever on the doomed Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo was moved earlier than it should have been, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday night.

But the agency’s acting chairman stressed it was unclear whether pilot error, mechanical problems or a host of other possibilities caused the spacecraft to disintegrate in the air.

“We are still a long way from finding a cause. We are months and months away,” NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said.

Note that the booms of SpaceShipTwo were to be moved into place when the craft is in the Thermosphere which is “technically” still part of the atmosphere. (There is an even higher rarified level of the “atmosphere called the exosphere.) When the craft is beyond the exosphere, that is when it is actually outside the atmosphere. Aside from reaction inertia effects from rotating the tail boom sections, atmospheric flight control surfaces on the craft will have very little influence in actual space. It is only on entering the upper layers of the atmosphere that “feathering” on the boom flight surfaces will begin to have an effect. The fact that the control lever had been moved into the “enable” position prematurely at Mach 1.0, would indicate that the spacecraft was being transitioned into reentry. The crafts was at also under the Mach 1.4 “feathering” velocity.

NTSB investigators found the plane’s fuel tanks, oxidizer tanks and engine Sunday among the wreckage, Hart said. All those parts were intact, with no signs of having burned through or of being breached, he said.


The engine had passed ground tests before Friday’s flight that satisfied engineers who determined it was “qualified” to be tested in flight. That process, he said, involved “a small number of firings in a row to make sure you get the same result.”

The experimental plastic-fuel rockets are high thrust ratio acceleration engines to boost the craft into space. Such engines are not generally used during re-entry maneuvers. It is also clear that the engineers “qualified” the engines for “Human-rated” flight testing. I don’t know if Virgin Galactic even has a robotic “test drone” version of their craft, but that doesn’t mean that the company acted irresponsibly by not having one. It is not unusual at all that the craft would have experienced test pilots at the controls. All this would tend to indicate that the experimental plastic-fueled rockets were not the cause of the crash.

While they are building on technology of past government space program advancements, commercial spacecraft development is still in it’s infancy. It’s been over a hundred years that petroleum based ground vehicles were invented, and we still have deaths caused by manufacturing defects. I think everyone needs to relax, get off Virgin Galactic’s back and let them investigate and solve the problem.