Pilot error likely cause of Virgin Galactic spaceship crash

By Ted Bonnitt on October 31st, 2014
Pilot error likely cause of Virgin Galactic spaceship crash
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 blown apart by failure during test flight. Credit:
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 blown apart by failure during test flight. Credit:

Updated November 4, 2014

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 test vehicle crash was due to pilot era, according to investigators on scene. One of the two pilots who were aboard was killed and the other seriously hurt when the spacecraft went down during a test flight last week.

The failure occurred two minutes after the SpaceShip2's rocket engine was ignited.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that the co-pilot, 39 year-old Michael Alsbury, who died in the accident, unlocked the craft's aerodynamic controls too early, and that the ship disintegrated seconds later. Alsbury unlocked a lever that caused SpaceShip2's tail to rise and create drag. The "feathering" procedure should have occured later when the craft was flying at 1.4 mach speed, instead of mach 1.0, when the accident occured.  

The NTSB is wrapping up its on site crash investigation to determine the cause of Friday's crash. The full investigation may take up to a year to conclude. 

39 year-old Michael Alsbury was a 14-year veteran of Scaled Composites, the maker of the SpaceShip2. Alsbury served as co-pilot with pilot Mark Stucky on SpaceShip2's first powered test flight last year. He leaves a wife and two children under 5 years of age.

The surviving pilot, Peter Siebold, 43, was able to parachute-eject from the space plane and was airlifted to a local hospital with a shoulder injury. Scaled Composites reports that Siebold is alert and talking with his family and doctors. He has yet to be questioned by investigators.

Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died in the crash. Credit:

Wreckage of the craft was scattered as far as 35 miles apart, with the main impact roughly 20 miles northeast of Mojave, CA.

It was the first test flight of the experimental vehicle since February. Virgin Galactic was testing a new fuel mixture for better performance thrust when the inflight explosion occurred.

Wreckage of SpaceShip2.  Credit KTLA.

The carrier aircraft, “WhiteKnightTwo” landed safely after releasing SpaceShip2 for its test flight at 50,000 feet.

It was the vehicle's fourth powered flight attempt in a test program intended to reach outer space flight by the end of this year, had all gone well.

Virgin Galactic’s founder, Richard Bronson had hopes of flying in the space tourism vehicle during its first commercial flight scheduled for 2015. Hundreds of customers have purchased quarter-million dollar deposits for a seat to fly on the commercial space plane, which will be delayed by the deadly accident.

A second spacecraft now under construction is due to be completed by the end of the year.

New customers have reportedly purchased tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic since the crash, as a show of support for the endeavor.

Speaking to reporters the day after the crash, Bronson vowed to press forward with his dream of a space tourism business. "In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short. We will now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward together." 

Here's a look at the third powered test flight conducted in January 2014:

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