It’s taken a few years to get back in the air after the crash of 2014 but Virgin Galactic put up its commercial space vehicle to a successful rocket powered flight on April 5th above Mach 1 to an altitude of 85,000 feet. The VSS Unity went through all its powered tests well creating a milestone for space travel that is considerable. While the rest of the world is thinking small and is locked in the turmoil of yesterday’s political struggles, whether it be the threats of Syria, the attacks of ISIS, the unpredictability of South Korea or even the latest revelations of America’s Deep State out of control federal government hungry for power and global domination, mankind is going to space without the nations of the world slowing the process down for a change. Because of this VSS Unity’s powered flight the schedule of taking civilian guests into space in a few months is proceeding marking a major change in the opportunities offered to our species.
I’ve been a fan of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise since the start and its been frustrating for me to watch the pain they’ve had to go through to reobtain their FAA licensing for commercial space flight. I understand the rigorous need for scrutiny when it comes to aviation, but not at the cost of innovation and adventure. As usual once federal authorities get involved, the speed of business becomes mired by comb over politicians and their lack luster view of the world. So it was nothing short of a miracle that the VSS Unity was able to get back into the air at all. Here is a bit of the story that Virgin Galactic had to endure to get back to where they were before the crash in 2014.
Initial investigations found that the engine and propellant tanks were intact, showing that there had not been a fuel explosion. Telemetry data and cockpit video showed that instead, the air braking system appeared to have deployed incorrectly and too early, for unknown reasons, and that the craft had violently broken apart in midair seconds later.
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said on 2 November 2014 that investigators had determined SpaceShipTwo’s tail system was supposed to have been released for deployment as the craft was traveling about 1.4 times the speed of sound; instead, the tail section began pivoting when the vehicle was flying at Mach 1. “I’m not stating that this is the cause of the mishap. We have months and months of investigation to determine what the cause was.” Asked if pilot error was a possible factor, Hart said: “We are looking at all of these issues to determine what was the root cause of this mishap.” He noted that it was also unclear how the tail mechanism began to rotate once it was unlocked, since that maneuver requires a separate pilot command that was never given, and whether the craft’s position in the air and its speed somehow enabled the tail section to swing free on its own.
In November 2014, Branson and Virgin Galactic came under criticism for their attempts to distance the company from the disaster by referring to the test pilots as Scaled Composites employees. Virgin Galactic’s official statement on 31 October 2014 said: “Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today. […] Local authorities have confirmed that one of the two Scaled Composites pilots died during the accident”. This was in strong contrast to public communications previously released concerning the group’s successful flights, which had routinely presented pilots, craft, and projects within the same organizational structures, as being “Virgin Galactic” flights or activities of “the Galactic team”. The BBC’s David Shukman commented that: “Even as details emerge of what went wrong, this is clearly a massive setback to a company hoping to pioneer a new industry of space tourism. Confidence is everything and this will not encourage the long list of celebrity and millionaire customers waiting for their first flight”.
At a hearing in Washington D.C. on 28 July 2015, and a press release on the same day the NTSB cited inadequate design safeguards, poor pilot training, lack of rigorous FAA oversight and a potentially anxious co-pilot without recent flight experience as important factors in the 2014 crash. They determined that the co-pilot, who died in the accident, prematurely unlocked a movable tail section some ten seconds after SpaceShip Two fired its rocket engine and was breaking the sound barrier, resulting in the craft’s breaking apart. But the Board also found that the Scaled Composites unit of Northrop Grumman, which designed and flew the prototype space tourism vehicle, didn’t properly prepare for potential human slip-ups by providing a fail-safe system that could have guarded against such premature deployment. “A single-point human failure has to be anticipated,” board member Robert Sumwalt said. Instead, Scaled Composites “put all their eggs in the basket of the pilots doing it correctly.”
NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart emphasized that consideration of human factors, which was not emphasized in the design, safety assessment, and operation of SpaceShipTwo’s feather system, is critical to safe manned spaceflight to mitigate the potential consequences of human error. “Manned commercial spaceflight is a new frontier, with many unknown risks and hazards. In such an environment, safety margins around known hazards must be rigorously established and, where possible, expanded. For commercial spaceflight to successfully mature, we must meticulously seek out and mitigate known hazards, as a prerequisite to identifying and mitigating new hazards.” In its submission to the NTSB, Virgin Galactic reports that the second SS2, currently nearing completion, has been modified with an automatic mechanical inhibit device to prevent locking or unlocking of the feather during safety-critical phases. An explicit warning about the dangers of premature unlocking has also been added to the checklist and operating handbook, and a formalized crew resource management (CRM) approach, already used by Virgin for its WK2 operations, is being adopted for SS2. However, despite CRM issues being cited as a likely contributing cause, Virgin confirmed that it would not modify the cockpit display system.
WASHINGTON — As Virgin Galactic prepares to resume testing of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, the company announced Aug. 1 that it has received a launch license for those tests from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
The license, dated July 29, covers test flights of SpaceShipTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California over a two-year period. On those tests, SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, from which it is released and fires its hybrid rocket engine for a suborbital flight, gliding back to a runway landing.
While Virgin Galactic ultimately plans to use SpaceShipTwo to carry space tourists, the license awarded by the FAA restricts the company to transporting only “non-deployed scientific, experimental, or inert payloads” on flights carried out under the license.
The license prohibits Virgin Galactic from flying what are officially classified as “spaceflight participants” on SpaceShipTwo until the company can “successfully verify the integrated performance” of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. “Verification must include flight testing, and the results must be provided to the FAA prior to conducting a mission with a space flight participant on board,” the license states.
Virgin Galactic opted to receive the launch license, with those restrictions, over an alternative known as an experimental permit. Such permits allow for testing of suborbital reusable launch vehicles under a more streamlined regulatory environment, but prohibit the company holding the permit from using the vehicle for any commercial application. Blue Origin, for example, has an experimental permit for test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.
Civilian space travel is more than a giant step for the human race. Mixed in with all the safety precautions leveled at Virgin Galactic is a jealousy of those who strive for adventure and discover that it persists in everything a federal government is involved with. The sad thing about it is that the United States is faster than most places around the world for endeavors like this. There really isn’t any other place in the world where something like Virgin Galactic could even exist. Rules don’t always exist to protect people from the dangers of a new endeavor, they are often put in place to preserve the static thinking of yesterday from the challenges of tomorrow and they are incentivized to delay that tomorrow as long as they can—and they think of it as a victory to do so.
It was far more than just a technical feat to get the VSS Unity back into the air under powered flight conditions, pushing up against the edges of space so soon after their tragic crash in 2014. I think in the scheme of things that crashes will happen and people will die, but the most dangerous thing that can happen to a space program like the one at Virgin Galactic is when the bureaucrats get involved. They by nature want to keep mankind chained to their papers and their courts so any excuse they can obtain to limit the imagination of any human to bypass the governments of the world and step into space is something they are all too eager to exploit. With that understanding, Virgin Galactic is poised to resume their commercial flights into space by the end of 2018 and that is a tremendous opportunity for everyone. Not only is space the opportunity for entire new economies to develop but for the essential philosophy of mankind to change for the better. It’s time for a major change in the way everyone looks at even basic human endeavors and the potential of space puts that opportunity within reach. First it will be the very privileged who can spend $250,000 to travel out of earth’s grasp and away from the clutches of the jealous aristocrats who have ruled mankind for thousands and thousands of years. It’s not just mother earth that we are all escaping from, that overbearing parent who won’t even let us go outside when its raining. It’s the jealous brothers and sisters who seek to appease that mother with small thinking and way too many rules. But finally, the door is opening and the big new adventure of space is just outside, and now we can go. Which is wonderful news!
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