SpaceShipTwo Tail No. 2 taking shape at The SpaceShip Company factory in Mojave, California. Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Jan 10, 2015 Test program for next SpaceShipTwo being developed by Virgin Galactic

Sen—When the next SpaceShipTwo takes to the skies over Mojave, California, a milestone owner Virgin Galactic expects to hit this year, the press and public will be better informed about the nature of test flights, the company’s chief executive vowed.

In his first major talk since an Oct. 31, 2014, accident claimed the original SpaceShipTwo, killing a Scaled Composites test pilot, Virgin Galactic chief George Whitesides said his company is developing the flight test program for the second spaceship, which is currently under construction by The Spaceship Company, a Virgin-owned sister firm.

Scaled, which specializes in prototypes, built the first spaceship.

“When we return to flight we expect that we will manage the test flight program ourselves,” Whitesides said at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech 2015 conference in Orlando.

The accident remains under investigation, but one lesson already learned is that the SpaceShipTwo team could have done a better job setting expectations, Whitesides said.

“Whether on the ground or in the air, developmental test is intended to understand, improve and confirm the capabilities of new systems. Failure in the context of test—while unfortunate, and in our case tragic—is essentially part of the deal.

“As the net of risk-aversion and general cynicism draws tighter on a society, so diminishes our willingness to take the risks necessary for bold steps forward,” he said.

One way to ameliorate the situation is to more openly and proactively characterize risk.

“Setting context and probabilities of success and corresponding potential failures can help the public and press understand the range of outcomes more fully … It is not easy and it takes a willingness to acknowledge the possibility of failure—or at least the possibility of off-nominal outcomes,” Whitesides said.

“This is something I think we could have done better and it is something that we will work hard on as we approach our own return to flight,” he added.

“The bigger point is that we as an aerospace community are at the frontier of discovery, the frontier of test and thus the frontier of failure. Our failures improve the safety and lives of people on and off the planet and thus we should be active and forward-footed in our efforts to communicate the challenges of our business and the way that progress is truly made,” Whitesides said.

Even before the accident Virgin had planned to manage the test program for the second spaceship, Whitesides wrote in an email to Sen.

The second vehicle, for now referred to as SpaceShipTwo Tail No. 2, is nearing completion, with more than 90 percent of the structure fabrication finished and about two-thirds of the systems.

Construction of Tail No. 3 should begin “in earnest over the summer when we finish the second spaceship,” Whitesides said.

“We have to strike the right balance between trying to build vehicles quickly, but also giving our engineers the chance to learn from test flight,” he added.

The final build schedule for Tail 2 will remain flexible to include modifications or changes that result from the ongoing accident investigation.

Preliminary findings from the U.S. National Safety Transportation Board, which is heading the investigation, show that co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who was killed in the crash, for some reason released the locking mechanism on the ship’s foldable tail early.

Aerodynamic forces tore the vehicle apart. Pilot Pete Siebold was thrown clear of the wreckage and he managed to parachute to the ground, sustaining a serious shoulder injury in the process.

Whitesides said he was “disappointed by some of the hyperbolic coverage of our accident which speculated on the failure of subsystems which were generally cleared early on by the NTSB investigation.”

The Oct. 31 test run was first time the spaceship’s hybrid rocket engine was powered up during flight since Virgin Galactic switched to a new fuel grain, prompting some commentators to guess that a rocket explosion caused the accident.

“I would highly recommend just turning off television if any of you are unfortunate enough to have a failure that cable news decides to cover,” Whitesides told members of the AIAA trade organization.

“That helped me a lot,” he said.