Where next, Virgin Galactic? A 2014 that opened with great expectations that, after a decade of effort, the era of privately funded personal spaceflight would finally begin ended nowhere near space – with a crash that killed one test pilot and severely injured another, and with the US National Transportation Safety Board picking over wreckage and data.
That 31 October accident over the Mojave desert saw SpaceShipTwo ripped apart by aerodynamic forces during its fourth-ever powered flight, just 11s after release at around 55,000ft from its dedicated carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. Early indications are that the SS2’s fate was sealed not by any rocket motor malfunction, but by inadvertent activation of an empennage feathering mechanism designed to control its rate of descent from suborbital space. But while the NTSB continues its investigation, the root cause of the disaster remains a mystery – as does the fate of the programme.
All that Virgin Galactic is saying now is that its second ship, SpaceShipTwo serial 2, “is about 90% complete and overall assembly is 65% complete. We anticipate preliminary tests in 2015”.
Meanwhile, the NTSB has the wreckage of SS2-1 in secure storage and continues to evaluate telemetry and ground- and vehicle-based video. The Board has interviewed surviving co-pilot Pete Siebold, who escaped by parachute, and found his account of the incident to be “consistent with other data sources in the investigation”, and that he was “unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early” by Mike Alsbury, who was found dead in the desert sands, still strapped to his seat.
Until SS2-2 is complete Virgin has no spaceship to fly – and until the NTSB concludes its work there may anyway be no prospect of moving beyond the sort of ground testing that any newly-built example of an air or spacecraft type would normally undergo.
That is a far cry from where things stood just weeks before the accident. Virgin Group boss Richard Branson had closed 2013 with a clearly stated intention of putting the first of some 600 pre-booked astronaut-passengers into space during 2014 – at $250,000 per ride – following a maiden passenger flight that would take him and his family outside the atmosphere. In September 2014 he backtracked, but only slightly, when he appeared on David Letterman’s late-night talk show and declared that he and his family “would be on the first flight from [Virgin Galactic’s operational base in] New Mexico… in February or March” of 2015.
Meanwhile, Branson told a national US television audience that reaching space in 2014 remained a possibility: “From now until March  there will be many test flights, many test flights into space.”
The very next flight ended in tragedy.
BEST LAID SCHEMES
It was to have been so different. This spinoff from Branson’s Virgin Group empire has been infused with all the glitz and chutzpah of a Branson project, allied to the technological creativity of legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites company. Substantial financial backing – ultimately of $390 million for 37.8% of the venture – by Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments should have removed any doubts about resources.
But progress has been slow. The Virgin Galactic idea was born of Branson’s decision to sponsor Scaled’s successful 2004 bid to win the Ansari X-Prize, for being the first private operation to cross the widely accepted 100km altitude border to space twice within two weeks in a reusable vehicle capable of carrying three people.
SS2 and WK2 are, essentially, scaled-up versions of the X-Prize craft – but scaling up has not been straightforward. Delays have been a regular feature of the programme, which by summer 2008 was declaring that passenger flights would begin in 18 months. More than once, questions were raised about WK2’s runway stability.
Alarmingly for a craft that had achieved altitudes of about 70,000ft during its three successful powered test flights – but needs to touch 330,000ft to reach the edge of space – fuel for SS2’s liquid-solid hybrid rocket motor has been an issue throughout. A 2007 oxidiser test accident killed three Scaled workers in Mojave, and the fatal 2014 crash was the first flight test of a new solid fuel, whose evaluation and selection had opened a gap of nine months between the third and fourth powered flights.
The mission plan is unashamedly reminiscent of the US Air Force-NASA X-15 programme, in which the mighty North American rocketplanes were hoisted to altitude by B-52 bombers before turning on the juice and eventually gliding home to the take-off point. Several pilots earned astronaut wings by crossing the 50-mile altitude barrier that stood as the USA’s definition of space at the time, and some even went about 10 miles higher to make the modern 100km threshold.
But while SS2 has nothing like the speed and power of an X-15, Branson, Rutan and their colleagues must be keenly aware of the hazards they are dicing with. One of those early USAF astronauts was Maj Michael Adams, who in 1967 lost control of his X-15 owing to an electrical disturbance. He recovered from a spin but ended up in a Mach 4.7 inverted dive, and the aircraft broke up in increasingly thick air, killing Adams on impact with the desert floor at Delamar Lake, Nevada.
At this point, discussion of Virgin Galactic’s next move must be speculation. But some observers, noting that the number of deaths in spaceflight and training accidents totals about 5% of the complement to date of space travellers, reckon that commercial risk considerations will force Branson to find a face-saving way to bring the programme to a close.
No doubt some would consider such an end to the dream of personal spaceflight to be unfortunate but prudent, while others would see nothing short of the tragic crushing of a widely held human aspiration. Whatever the outcome, and 2015 may bring an answer, it must be said that Branson’s broader vision would, if realised, transform air transport. On that same Letterman show, Branson talked about the future thus: “What we’re dreaming about is to transport people point to point.”