Spaceship Two has crashed
October 31, 2014 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Spaceship Two lit its engine for a test flight then experienced an anomaly.

Reports from the field indicate at least one dead. A news conference is scheduled for 2pm (pacific).
posted by Sophont (180 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by Iridic at 11:48 AM on October 31, 2014


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posted by wuwei at 11:49 AM on October 31, 2014


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posted by The Tensor at 11:50 AM on October 31, 2014


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posted by detachd at 11:51 AM on October 31, 2014


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Not the best week for space programs.
posted by xingcat at 11:52 AM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]


The stars look very different today.
posted by maxsparber at 11:52 AM on October 31, 2014 [26 favorites]


Damn, I'm so out of the loop that I thought these were unmanned vehicles experiencing anomalies.

. for the brave test pilot

Makes me feel oddly icky about continuing my new-found enjoyment of Kerbal Space Program. Lots of anomalies on my missions, that's for sure.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:54 AM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]


Spaceflight is hard and will remain so. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, nor be cavalier with the lives lost in that pursuit. As with life in general, we should learn from our mistakes as best we can and move forward.

Hats off to the guy who willingly climbed into the seat on this test flight.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:57 AM on October 31, 2014 [44 favorites]


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posted by tonycpsu at 11:58 AM on October 31, 2014


Some good coverage on this forum. Pics of the debris field.
posted by Sophont at 12:00 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


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posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 12:00 PM on October 31, 2014


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While this is sad, this is why you have test flights. Hopefully after anomaly investigation and resolution Virgin will fly again.

Pro Tip for the press: You don't need to put quotes around anomaly.
posted by Rob Rockets at 12:01 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


RIP to the brave adventurer that died.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:02 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


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posted by mkim at 12:02 PM on October 31, 2014


Ad astra per aspera
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posted by metaquarry at 12:03 PM on October 31, 2014 [42 favorites]


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posted by saulgoodman at 12:04 PM on October 31, 2014


Space is hard.
posted by casarkos at 12:05 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


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posted by dhartung at 12:06 PM on October 31, 2014


Oh geez.

Scaled had an accident on the ground back in 2007 when an engine exploded in a test stand, killing a couple engineers. I wonder if the two accidents are related.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:07 PM on October 31, 2014


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Space is hard and rocket science is unforgiving.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:07 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


Pro Tip for the press: You don't need to put quotes around anomaly.

Presumably they're clumsily quoting the Virgin Galactic tweet.

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posted by dorque at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


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posted by hippybear at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by InsanePenguin at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2014


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10-4
posted by Mblue at 12:10 PM on October 31, 2014


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also fuck
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:10 PM on October 31, 2014


. We wave goodbye? Who knows what awaits them. Boldy to go where no man has gone before.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 12:10 PM on October 31, 2014


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Not a good week to leave the planet.
posted by Brian Puccio at 12:11 PM on October 31, 2014


Hopefully after anomaly investigation and resolution Virgin will fly again.

I think Virgin is done. They're already years behind schedule, have had to take sizable investment from outside investors who want returns, and their search for a practical engine has just had a huge setback.
posted by smackfu at 12:11 PM on October 31, 2014 [12 favorites]


I was going to say the same as backseatpilot: three people were killed and three were injured during ground testing of SpaceShipTwo's rocket in 2007.
posted by ddbeck at 12:12 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by Bwithh at 12:14 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by Twain Device at 12:14 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by /\/\/\/ at 12:15 PM on October 31, 2014


Space travel will always have volunteers, it's in our genes.
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posted by Mblue at 12:17 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


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posted by Maecenas at 12:18 PM on October 31, 2014


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Explorers are heroes.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:20 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


Hopefully Xcor's Lynx won't lose funding because of this. It uses a rocket engine that is the successor to the ones used in the rocket racing league.
posted by Sophont at 12:20 PM on October 31, 2014


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Pro Tip for the press: You don't need to put quotes around anomaly.

I dunno; it does read as a very unemotional description, as opposed to something like "accident" or "explosion". So the quotes emphasize "Virgin's words, not ours."

(Although I assume "anomaly" is professionally precise industry usage?)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:20 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


Pro Tip for the press: You don't need to put quotes around anomaly.

This is a house style used by many news organizations to indicate a specific descriptive word or phrasing taken from a source when used in a headline. Even if it isn't technically necessary in most writing contexts, I suggest you just get used to it. I'm pretty sure they use language every day and this is not an error of inexperience.
posted by dhartung at 12:25 PM on October 31, 2014 [20 favorites]


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posted by CharlesV42 at 12:28 PM on October 31, 2014


I'd have put it in quotes to make it clear that it wasn't me who picked such a conspicuous euphemism. You can't sugarcoat a crash; you might as well just call it what it is.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:29 PM on October 31, 2014 [7 favorites]


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posted by Foosnark at 12:30 PM on October 31, 2014


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I'm not suggesting that I'd be brave enough to switch places with this brave astronaut but as crazed as I am for all things space-driven, people who know me would know that I could not have wished for a more glorious end.

Come on, come on, come on
Let's go space truckin'

posted by Purposeful Grimace at 12:32 PM on October 31, 2014


First, of all, I salute the brave men who risk their lives for the purposes of expanding humanity's horizons. Today is a sad day.

As for the press, I'm one of them. We've put quotes around "anomaly" and "mishap" before because we want to make it clear that we're using the words provided by NASA or VG or whoever, not providing our own summary with those terms. Since we have no first hand data, we have to go with what they tell us - but when there are reports of a catastrophic and possibly fatal explosion, "mishap" doesn't really fit the bill, so into the quotes it goes. It strikes me as sanitized language, like "terminate" or "made redundant" — an "anomaly" could be any number of things, from a glitch to a controlled emergency landing to a crash or midair disintegration. Wouldn't be my choice to use it, since it's so imprecise... so it's really just to make it clear who's calling it that, so the reader can draw their own conclusions. When we confirm it exploded or crashed, we use those terms ourselves.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:38 PM on October 31, 2014 [29 favorites]


"I like Richard and I think he’s doing some cool things. But technology is not really his whack you know." -Elon Musk

If I go up in a spaceship, it'll be the one built by the company run by an engineer, not by a record-label owner.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:39 PM on October 31, 2014


I'm very sorry someone died, and very sorry commercial space flight will be held back all that much longer.
posted by bondcliff at 12:41 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


backseatpilot wrote: Scaled had an accident on the ground back in 2007 when an engine exploded in a test stand, killing a couple engineers. I wonder if the two accidents are related.

This is possible, but I suspect unlikely. A big part of this test flight was testing out a new type of fuel (plastic-based rather than rubber-based). The rocket motor was also a newer design, first flown in April 2013.

I hadn't realized how many test flights this particular craft had flown: this was the 55th test flight.

RIP for the pilot who died; prayers for the injured pilot.
posted by 1367 at 12:44 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


on re-reading my comment, it's pretty harsh. My condolences to those who have lost their lives.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:47 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's an interesting article (from a few days before the accident) that describes SpaceShipTwo's troubled development. The section titled "The Achille’s Heel" describes the difficulties Scaled had with engine development, which seems prescient given the reports of the engine starting and restarting during today's flight.

> If I go up in a spaceship, it'll be the one built by the company run by an engineer, not by a record-label owner.

Scaled Composites (an aerospace company, owned by Northrop Grumman ) is building the spacecraft, not Virgin. And Musk will be an unusually lucky rocket builder if his sniping never comes back to haunt him.
posted by ddbeck at 12:48 PM on October 31, 2014 [23 favorites]


The NTSB just tweeted that they're sending out a go team to investigate the crash.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:49 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by Joey Michaels at 12:51 PM on October 31, 2014


I hadn't realized when I heard about this that someone had been killed.

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posted by immlass at 12:54 PM on October 31, 2014


Per ardua, ad astra.

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posted by seyirci at 12:54 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


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posted by shvaughn at 12:55 PM on October 31, 2014


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And with a person dead, "anomaly" leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Call your failures what they are.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:57 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


So is that it for space tourism? There's other non-government space businesses but they're mostly about cargo aren't they?
posted by Artw at 12:58 PM on October 31, 2014


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Just read about SpaceShipTwo with my kid a couple of nights ago. We'll get you yet, gravity well.
posted by rouftop at 12:59 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


Scaled Composites (an aerospace company, owned by Northrop Grumman ) is building the spacecraft, not Virgin.

Although this is the only actual spacecraft Scaled Composites has made. They were an airplane company before this.
posted by smackfu at 12:59 PM on October 31, 2014


Scaled Composites is owned by Burt Rutan, who is at least an aerospace engineer, unlike Elon Musk.

One of the most memorable days of my life was watching an early SpaceShipOne launch from Edwards AFB - it might even be the same launch pictured here. It felt like the whole world was changing around me. The last ten years have really shown that space is hard. It kind of puts the original space race in a new perspective for me (and let's not forget the astronauts who died then, as well).
posted by muddgirl at 1:00 PM on October 31, 2014 [8 favorites]


And with a person dead, "anomaly" leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Call your failures what they are.

Brings to mind "Obviously, a major malfunction".
posted by octothorpe at 1:02 PM on October 31, 2014 [7 favorites]


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posted by Blue Jello Elf at 1:02 PM on October 31, 2014


anomaly - "something that deviates from the expected." It's entirely too early for Virgin Galactic to give answers as to what happened.
posted by muddgirl at 1:05 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


There's a picture out there of the dead pilot. It is pretty nasty to see.

Just be aware, if that kind of stuff is hard for you.
posted by merelyglib at 1:05 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by strixus at 1:06 PM on October 31, 2014


Scaled Composites is owned by Burt Rutan, who is at least an aerospace engineer, unlike Elon Musk.

Maaaaaaaaaaybe not the time to get into a pissing match about what company or person is better than who.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:07 PM on October 31, 2014 [11 favorites]


Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:08 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


First and foremost, condolences to the family of the person who died. But Neil deGrasse Tyson (and others here) have said it best: Space is hard. I am of the opinion that hard things - like war, peace, bailing out the banks to avoid a world financial meltdown - are best left up to the government. The easier things are best left up to private corporations. As much as I admire Richard Branson, this is not what he should be doing.
posted by McMillan's Other Wife at 1:08 PM on October 31, 2014


Maaaaaaaaaaybe not the time to get into a pissing match about what company or person is better than who.

I don't think it's the time, either. I was addressing this comment from leotrotsky.
posted by muddgirl at 1:08 PM on October 31, 2014


I do tend to think "anomaly" is on the unspecific end of things, even if you don't want to get into causes. Something like "loss of spacecraft" has the same neutral tone but is much clearer.
posted by smackfu at 1:09 PM on October 31, 2014


The last ten years have really shown that space is hard.

The article linked above by ddbeck has quite a bit to say about this, in fact. Space is hard, that's a given. The article makes a good case that what is really hard, perhaps impossible, is to achieve long term process on hard goals when the major efforts are characterized by short sprints towards a fixed goal.

Apollo made the moon, and not much else. Ditto with X prizes.

It matches a lot of human endeavor: we are very good at solving short term problems (Lion! Right there!), but notoriously weak on the long-term ones.
posted by Walleye at 1:09 PM on October 31, 2014 [7 favorites]


I do tend to think "anomaly" is on the unspecific end of things, even if you don't want to get into causes. Something like "loss of spacecraft" has the same neutral tone but is much clearer.

Isn't "loss of craft" exactly what the tweet said?
posted by muddgirl at 1:10 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


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posted by Canageek at 1:11 PM on October 31, 2014


"serious anomaly"
posted by merelyglib at 1:13 PM on October 31, 2014


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For a brave pilot. I hope his colleague isn't seriously injured.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:16 PM on October 31, 2014


Space is hard, though we're really lucky it's not even harder. "If our planet was 50% larger in diameter, we would not be able to venture into space, at least using rockets for transport. "

There's other non-government space businesses but they're mostly about cargo aren't they?

SpaceX is working on crewed spacecraft, like the Dragon 2 capsule.
posted by jjwiseman at 1:16 PM on October 31, 2014 [9 favorites]


Writer/reporter Joel Glenn Brenner has followed the story of Virgin Galactic for years, back to the X-Prize days. She knows the people who work there and evidently knew the dead pilot. She was interviewed by phone on CNN when the story broke about an hour ago and she just went off on the company live on the air "for killing my friend" -- and said that this rocket's technical potential, even if it had worked and not blown up, was never going to be as big as the company's enthusiasm and desire to get customers into space.

She was in effect a commercial space fangirl, someone who wants to see this world she has covered succeed -- and yet publicly calling out Virgin for negligence and manslaughter, although she did not use that word. It was very hard to listen to, very sad.

A small portion of her interview is online here. Not posted yet is a later CNN interview where she recounts her friends stumbling across the pilot's body, still strapped into the seat, beyond any help.

What a horrible tragedy.

EDITED TO ADD: She's being interviewed on CNN again now.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:18 PM on October 31, 2014 [17 favorites]


"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"

. for the dead

And a thank you to the next person who'll willingly step up for the next test.
posted by tyllwin at 1:20 PM on October 31, 2014 [6 favorites]


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posted by Gelatin at 1:26 PM on October 31, 2014


On preview, I also was going to link to the video of Joël Glenn Brenner blaming Virgin Galactic. She says the engine "would have not gotten anywhere near space" if it had worked today.
posted by exogenous at 1:34 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


They've always been all about the suborbital x-plane style stuff haven't they? More edge of space than space.
posted by Artw at 1:37 PM on October 31, 2014


Virgin Galactic press conference due to start around 5 PM Eastern time, live feed here from NBC.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:43 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


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for those who lost their lives.

And because this is America, a pre-emptive curse on the soul of the first person who tries to use this for political gain.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:48 PM on October 31, 2014 [6 favorites]


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It's a dangerous field, but I am glad there are people brave enough to continue this work. I expect they will do what engineers do - learn from this and minimize future risk. The risk will always be there, however.
posted by blurker at 1:56 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


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posted by Virtblue at 2:00 PM on October 31, 2014


Artw, although for the time being they were focusing on this suborbital technology, Branson has frequently spoken [here in 2013] of a future of e.g. satellite launches. NASA has worked with them on research, but they were not, for example, a candidate for the CRS resupply missions to the space station.

Recent investments by Abu Dhabi and rumored talks with Google are along the same lines.
posted by dhartung at 2:01 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


Douglas Messier (online handle "ParabolicArc" or @spacecom on Twitter) was an eyewitness to the explosion. My guess is that he was one of the unnamed friends of Joel Glenn Brenner who called her and told her what had happened, including finding the pilot.

He wrote this profoundly prescient article yesterday. It's all worth reading, but key quotes:
"After the Ansari X Prize, some people tried to convince [Burt] Rutan to replace the hybrid with a reusable liquid engine. He rejected the advice. Rutan came out of SpaceShipOne’s short flight test program believing the hybrid engine was simple and safe, and that it could be easily scaled up for the much larger SpaceShipTwo. He was wrong on both counts.

The first belief was shattered on a hot summer afternoon of July 26, 2007. Scaled engineers were conducting a cold flow of nitrous oxide that did not involve igniting any fuel. Three seconds into the 15-second test the nitrous tank burst, resulting in a massive explosion that destroyed the test stand and killed three engineers. Three others were injured.

Explosions are not unusual in engine development. However, it is rare that anyone dies in them. Safety procedures call for the evacuation of personnel to a safe area before any tests begin. That was not done in this case; the dead and injured were part of a group of 11 people standing near the test stand.

Following the accident, Rutan and Scaled Composites claimed ignorance. “The body of knowledge about nitrous oxide (N2O) used as a rocket motor oxidizer did not indicate to us even the possibility of such an event,” Scaled said in a press release. The media and Scaled supporters have largely parroted this explanation.

A team of experts experienced in working with nitrous oxide reviewed the accident and disputed the claim. “This would seem to indicate either a lack of due-diligence in researching the hazards surrounding N2O (negligence) or a wilful disregard of the truth,” they concluded.

Whatever Scaled’s culpability, there is no dispute the accident delayed the program significantly. Work on SpaceShipTwo was put on hold while engineers investigated the cause of the explosion. Hybrid engine tests would be delayed for nearly two years.

Once engine tests began again in April 2009, engineers would discover that Rutan’s other assumption was wrong. The hybrid engine just didn’t scale very well. The larger the engine became, the more vibrations and oscillations it produced. As engineers struggled to find a solution, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic quietly began work on alternative motor designs.

The failure of the hybrid to scale led to another problem. SpaceShipTwo had already been designed and built. The dimensions of the ship, the size of the passenger and crew cabin, the center of gravity…all those were already set. So, engineers now had to fit an engine within those parameters that could still get the vehicle into space.

This is the reverse of how rocket planes are typically designed.
Engineers figure out the engine first and then build the ship around what it can do. Rutan – a novice in rocket propulsion who had hit a home run with SpaceShipOne – got the process backward, resulting in years of delays. This failure would cause numerous headaches.

The rubber hybrid engine did get a workout in three flight tests, but the vibrations and oscillations it produced were so severe the motor couldn’t be fired for more than 20 seconds. The engine was sufficient to get SpaceShipTwo through the sound barrier, but it couldn’t get the vehicle anywhere near space.

It was not until May 2014 – after spending nearly a decade on the program, and a reported $150 million on engine development – Virgin Galactic announced it would be switching to a different type of hybrid engine, one powered by nitrous oxide and plastic. They are hoping for much better performance in flight.

By then, Rutan was gone, long since retired to a spread in Idaho. It was for others to make the new engine work and fix the mistake he had made.

Flight tests with the plastic engine are set to begin shortly..."
And this is his most recent Tweet today: "I've been deeply concerned for months that this could happen. It disturbed my waking hours and seeped into my dreams. #SpaceShipTwo"
posted by Asparagirl at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2014 [34 favorites]


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posted by suelac at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2014


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for anyone that lost their lives.

Space is not hard. Once you get there, it's relatively easy. Compared to getting there.

Rocket science is hard.

Rocket Science is the delicate art of creating a really really powerful explosion slowly and carefully and pointing in only one direction.

That doesn't then leave a heaping pile of toxic waste streaming out behind it.
posted by jefflowrey at 2:06 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


Crazy. I went to grab coffee at the library cafe, and noticed that the TV with CNN was reporting 1 dead, and I assumed that it was something to do with the explosion earlier in the week. It's terrible to learn that this is an entirely separate incident.
posted by codacorolla at 2:07 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by humanfont at 2:09 PM on October 31, 2014


The press conference so far is an exercise in frustration. No one is giving out any information that has not made the press so far. They would have us believe that SC or VG have no internal information, telemetry, communications during the event, ANYTHING?

It's a shrug session with vague noises about prevailing in the face of difficulties. Jesus.
posted by tigrrrlily at 2:18 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


Explosions are not unusual in engine development. However, it is rare that anyone dies in them. Safety procedures call for the evacuation of personnel to a safe area before any tests begin. That was not done in this case; the dead and injured were part of a group of 11 people standing near the test stand.

Emphasis mine, 'cause holy shit, that's insane.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:22 PM on October 31, 2014 [9 favorites]


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posted by mondo dentro at 2:33 PM on October 31, 2014


Reading everything about the engine development mess makes me very angry about this.

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posted by Thorzdad at 2:40 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


Mike Mullane wrote something like "extreme flight (and space flight counts) is extremely unforgiving", and it continues to be true. If your car breaks down, pull over to the side of the road. If your supersonic aircraft or rocket starts not working, things go very bad very quickly. Bill Weaver's description of just that in an SR-71 comes to mind.
posted by Phredward at 2:49 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


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posted by limeonaire at 2:49 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by ZeusHumms at 2:53 PM on October 31, 2014


Reading everything about the engine development mess makes me very angry about this.

That article is a bit on an eye opener.
posted by Artw at 3:00 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by Smart Dalek at 3:04 PM on October 31, 2014


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Hopefully this doesn't come across as trivializing the tragedy, but I think I may need to rewatch Europa Report soon. It's a rather nice take on space being hard, deadly, and worth it.
posted by brundlefly at 3:06 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


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"anomaly" leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Call your failures what they are.

Star Trek led me to expect that anomalies are something you find in space.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:07 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


Time magazine's Editor at Large Jeffrey Kluger wastes no time weighing in with an offensively disrespectful editorial.
posted by Nelson at 3:11 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 3:11 PM on October 31, 2014


The Antares situation was also described as an "anomaly", though that resulted in the rocket being remotely detonated as a safety measure rather than immediately exploding and killing someone.
posted by Artw at 3:15 PM on October 31, 2014


Time magazine's Editor at Large Jeffrey Kluger wastes no time weighing in with an offensively disrespectful editorial.

What's offensive or disrespectful about it? If the accusations that are coming to light are true, it seems that Branson has been offensively disrespectful of the lives of his employees.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 3:17 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


Time magazine's Editor at Large Jeffrey Kluger wastes no time weighing in with an offensively disrespectful editorial.

"All of them had reserved a seat and paid a deposit toward their $200,000 ticket for a trip that—if it ever happened—would last just 15 minutes and ascend to just 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically counts as being in space, but only to the extent that riding a jet ski off the beach in Ft. Lauderdale counts as going to sea."

Ouch.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:17 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


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posted by MrBobaFett at 3:21 PM on October 31, 2014


FWIW Blue Origin, the Bezos company, seems to have dropped out of building spacecraft entirely. Whatever they are doing they are pretty quiet about it.
posted by Artw at 3:22 PM on October 31, 2014


Test pilots are heroes that are usually unseen and unknown. If you're flying on a craft, it's the test pilots who made sure that it's safe. They don't just fly the machines. They do all sorts of dangerous things with them to see if the airframe can hold up and if it can recover if something goes wrong. Sometimes they'll invent wild scenarios and put the aircraft through them to make sure it can survive. The mundane nature of air travel is only mundane because of pilots like this who risk their lives to ensure that these things are safe.

And once in a while something goes horribly, horribly wrong. Test pilots simply don't get enough credit for what they do until an incident like this happens. Dammit.
posted by azpenguin at 3:25 PM on October 31, 2014 [10 favorites]


The oped seems to offer a correct description of Branson, regarding arrogance and seeming disregard for others lives.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 3:25 PM on October 31, 2014


Looks like Blue Origin are engaged in not very flashy collaborations with Lockheed, rather than the showy high profile stuff.
posted by Artw at 3:25 PM on October 31, 2014


Not to let Branson off the hook, but it dies read like the problems did not start with him.
posted by Artw at 3:29 PM on October 31, 2014


a group of 11 people standing near the test stand.

Shades of Nedelin, indeed. (This is a derail, as I don't think the accidents are directly related, but here's a technical discussion of the 2007 incident.)

Sierra Nevada Corporation has posted a statement expressing sympathy for the casualties but disclaiming any connection with the new motor or its installation, saying their involvement ended in May of this year.
posted by dhartung at 3:29 PM on October 31, 2014


Wait does Jeffrey Kluger think Branson or Bezos is doing anything more than just financing these ventures? It's not like they are designing the rockets.
posted by MrBobaFett at 3:31 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


I thought the Time editorial was offensive and disrespectful for how nastily it was written and how quickly it was published. Developing aircraft and spacecraft is difficult and dangerous work. The test pilots who fly them are well aware of their risks and take pride in their work. They deserve a little more respect than writing off their flying because some Time magazine editor has an axe to grind.

There's a legitimate argument that Virgin Galactic's development methods are sloppy or that their goals are insignificant or that Branson is a big jerk. Kluger's editorial does not add new information to that debate, the only information he adds in the op/ed was that he attended a press event a few months back. And he remembers that NASA Mission Control was located in Houston fifty years ago, which is somehow relevant because... Well I didn't follow his argument there.

Even if he were correct, there are better ways to make that argument than a hit piece released while one pilot's corpse isn't even cold and the other is lying seriously hurt in a hospital.
posted by Nelson at 3:37 PM on October 31, 2014 [6 favorites]




This is a derail, as I don't think the accidents are directly related...
While not directly related, that test stand explosion does reveal a disturbing lack of safety precaution on the part of Scaled Composites.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:39 PM on October 31, 2014


There will he no information if substance about the crash until a few days have passed and investigators have reviewed everything. It would be irresponsible for them to speculate or release any data to the general public in an unfiltered manner.

While the article linked above on engine design difficulties may prove prescient, there are controversies and problems any every project of this complexity.

Patience. The NTSB will complete an investigation. The facts will be brought to light.
posted by humanfont at 3:40 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by Renoroc at 3:41 PM on October 31, 2014


Paul Allen is looking like the shrewdest of the space millionaires right now.
posted by Artw at 3:46 PM on October 31, 2014


Test pilots simply don't get enough credit for what they do until an incident like this happens.

This looks like a pretty good chronological list of test pilots from across the last century to today. There are a lot of deaths listed (but hardly the majority of those listed died while on a test flight).

Without these men (I think they are all male) making their personal, calculated choice to be someone who was willing to drive a piece of technology that was still in development, the state of our ability to work in the air and in space would be much more limited than it is now.

I have nothing but respect for anyone who makes that choice. Their bravery and will advances the state of the science for the entire planet.
posted by hippybear at 3:49 PM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]


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posted by Small Dollar at 3:50 PM on October 31, 2014




The hybrid engine just didn’t scale very well. The larger the engine became, the more vibrations and oscillations it produced.

I've observed a number of hobby rocket flights with hybrid motors (hobbyist hybrid motors use N2O with cellulose). Even at a thrust of 2000N, around 1/1000th of SpaceShipTwo's motor, the oscillatory nature of the burn is clearly audible and distinguishes it from the steady burn of sold propellant.


SpaceShipTwo had already been designed and built. The dimensions of the ship, the size of the passenger and crew cabin, the center of gravity…all those were already set. So, engineers now had to fit an engine within those parameters that could still get the vehicle into space. This is the reverse of how rocket planes are typically designed.

It's hard to imagine that these engineers hadn't read Richard Feynman's "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" which recounts his investigation of the Challenger disaster and explains why complex machines should be designed bottom-up.
posted by neuron at 4:08 PM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]


It did not so much fly as plummet.

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posted by charlie don't surf at 4:15 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


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posted by adventureloop at 4:18 PM on October 31, 2014


Anomaly was, and probably still is, the standard term used for any 'oh shit' launch at Vandenberg AFB. Sometimes the anomaly was immediately obvious from the fall back site where emergency responders stood by just in case. Sometimes a launch would look nominal while it was visible and the anomaly would occur many miles downrange or just as the payload was reaching it's proposed orbit. You can watch launches from a number of off base sites. Here's the schedule.
posted by X4ster at 4:23 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]


Brings to mind "Obviously, a major malfunction".

And thus God said to man yet again, "Stop trying to touch my face."
posted by philip-random at 4:27 PM on October 31, 2014 [6 favorites]


Artw: "FWIW Blue Origin, the Bezos company, seems to have dropped out of building spacecraft entirely. Whatever they are doing they are pretty quiet about it"

They just announced a few things.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:39 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is basically a suboptimal allocation of resources issue.
posted by wuwei at 4:52 PM on October 31, 2014


There's been a lot of 'Space is hard' or 'People die on the frontier' talk since this happened. This is not the frontier of spaceflight. We walked on the moon 45 years ago. This 'spaceship' wasn't even an orbital craft.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:02 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


I am wondering how these experimental flights are regulated. As far as I can tell, they are given a Special Airworthiness Certificate, in an Experimental class. This does not appear to actually certify the aircraft as airworthy, quite the opposite. It seems to be a waiver to permit an unsafe flight, after an assessment that the aircraft is unlikely to kill many innocent civilians.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:04 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


Damn.
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posted by carter at 5:26 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't think people are saying "Space is hard" to excuse or even explain today's failure. I think if anything it's pushback against the narrative that commercial space companies have been trying to sell for nearly 10 years.
posted by muddgirl at 5:34 PM on October 31, 2014 [6 favorites]


Mitrovarr: "We walked on the moon 45 years ago."

And then we promptly forgot how to do it, to the point where even NASA admits they'd need probably a decade or so to get up to speed before they could send people to the moon again. Or at least that was the state of things a few years back.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:38 PM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]


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posted by Flood at 6:08 PM on October 31, 2014


Wasn't Virgin Galactic ultimately planning to build bigger and more capable rocket planes over time? I thought Spaceship 2's space tourism thing was just a way to provide operating income and experience as they worked towards bigger things.
posted by humanfont at 7:03 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]


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posted by thegirlwiththehat at 7:20 PM on October 31, 2014


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posted by koucha at 7:29 PM on October 31, 2014




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Just dressed inflatablekiwi junior up as an astronaut tonight for Halloween. As much as I want him so badly to go into space someday (something I'll likely never do), this sort of thing makes the danger very real.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 8:16 PM on October 31, 2014


The corporate motto invented for Virgin's imaginary competitor bears contemplating.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 PM on October 31, 2014


even NASA admits they'd need probably a decade or so to get up to speed before they could send people to the moon again

The current state of things is Orion. The project is far enough along that a test flight of an unmanned test module atop a Delta IV Heavy should take place this December. (NASA has pencilled in a manned mission by 2020, following certification of the Saturn V-rough-equivalent SLS.) Let's hope we can celebrate a success to balance out the rest of this year.

In a lot of ways the decision to seek commercial replacements for ISS resupply and crew transfer freed up the SLS/Orion (formerly Constellation) system to be what it needs to be rather than cover both low-orbit and beyond-orbit applications. This last August just saw the first splashdown test of the crew module, so actual progress is being made. Will we make any of the later deadlines? Probably not on time but they're actually on the calendar as opposed to "we would need a decade".

humanfont, Branson has mentioned future goals, but there's been no real development towards them. Meanwhile, SpaceX is building actual vehicles that go to ISS, working on crew-rating them, and looking to Mars mission applications. VG had to get out of this D-hell rut.
posted by dhartung at 10:34 PM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]


dhartung: "The current state of things is Orion. The project is far enough along that a test flight of an unmanned test module atop a Delta IV Heavy should take place this December. (NASA has pencilled in a manned mission by 2020, following certification of the Saturn V-rough-equivalent SLS.) Let's hope we can celebrate a success to balance out the rest of this year."

If they're doing a manned mission by 2020, that's not very far from a decade to go to the moon again.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:26 AM on November 1, 2014


(Unless that mission is to the moon, but I assume that's not the first thing they'd do.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:30 AM on November 1, 2014


What a horrible, tragic waste. Some days I think Charles Stross is right when it comes to space exploration.
posted by happyroach at 12:53 AM on November 1, 2014


People shouldn't be giving Branson any grief about this. He's an investor, and provides a brand. I'm glad he does so. This whole enterprise was already well underway thanks to Rutan, backed by Paul Allen, long before Branson heard about it and decided to get involved. Burt Rutan is a great man.

I was at the first SpaceShipOne launch a decade ago, and it remains one of my favorite memories. Little did we on the ground know what was happening when the rocket shot through the sun, but there's a great documentary about it. Digital cameras were pretty crappy back then, but the third of this set I took pretty much captures what it's all about. That (random stranger) child is maybe 13 or 14 today? I'd love to know what profession she ends up in.

The death of one of the pilots is sad news. But we shouldn't call it a tragedy. Most of us will die mundane deaths, whether in our dotage or snatched earlier by accident or disease. The pilot died doing a very dangerous thing, following in the footsteps of people whose names are written in the history books. You don't accidentally fall into a career as a test-pilot. You choose it. For this person, the opportunity to touch the outer bounds of human experience was worth the risk. While this is a sad moment, I have no doubt that the pilot would wish us not to mourn, but to reaffirm our commitment to exploration and discovery.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind,
In balance with this life, this death.

posted by amorphatist at 3:07 AM on November 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


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I was very saddened to hear about the loss of life in this crash. These test pilots are incredibly skilled, brave and dedicated people, and they are of course family and friends to some. It's a terrible loss.

I also think the test pilots have very thorough information about the real risks and dangers of flying these things. I won't speculate on the exact causes, but as long as we don't know any better, I don't think the accusations against Virgin are fair. I think we're projecting our own standards of reasonable, risk-averse behaviour onto the implicated, but while you and me may not have chosen to board a rocket ship if we knew how dangerous it was, the test pilots do and did.

When we talk about space travel being in its pioneer phase, it's because it's a good metaphor not only for exploring uncharted territory but also for the extreme risks involved. It may seem stupid, but it's done with open eyes. I don't know if it was Virgin Galactic staff or one of their competitors who talked about wanting to provide a 1920's airline level of safety. That wording makes it clear that more will die. Rocketships filled with rich tourists are going to hurtle helplessly into the ground. Is it going to be 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000? Are we prepared for that?

The tourists, dead and alive, will help fund the next generations of rocketships and in a 100 years it'll probably be both cheaper and safer, but occasionally people will still die doing this.
posted by cx at 4:32 AM on November 1, 2014


I'm pretty sure there will be no more rocketplanes full of rich tourists now. Not from them, anyway.
posted by Artw at 7:09 AM on November 1, 2014


The original hope for this space tourism venture -- and the stated goal of the X Prize which was won by SpaceShip One -- was to encourage private funding and development of new technologies with a different focus than government programs. One focus was reuse; most people have probably forgotten that the X Prize didn't just require getting to 100 km, it required doing so twice with the same craft in a fairly short turnaround time.

These non-orbital jaunts don't stress the ship as much as re-entering from orbital velocity though, so Scaled Composites was able to do the trick with the tech normally used to build Lear jets, which would be fried to a crisp re-entering from orbit. I know the expectation was that space tourism would fund further development into ever better tech, but it's hard to see how you extend the SpaceShip N tech to get it back from orbit.

Anyway, it does appear that Virgin Galactic has learned a nasty lesson in how not to build a rocket engine, although it seems that lesson might have been learned a bit more cheaply.
posted by localroger at 7:56 AM on November 1, 2014


I am curious to hear more about the surviving pilot. There are no ejection seats on SpaceShipTwo, so either he was able to release his seat harness, climb over to the egress hatch, open it, and jump out (all while undergoing extreme g-forces, as the ship was supersonic and breaking up) or else he was a very lucky survivor who got thrown clear of the wreckage, very much like pilot Bill Weaver and the SR-71 break-up in 1966. (We just had a great post and discussion about that, about three weeks ago.)

Either way, he's now a part of aviation history, as possibly the first person to survive exiting a plane/ship at ~50,000 feet, traveling at supersonic speeds, and not wearing a pressure suit! I realize that may be very cold comfort, with the loss of his co-pilot and the ship and possibly the company he works for. But it's amazing that he's not dead.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'll just say this -- four minutes of weightlessness seems like just enough to get queasy on and not enough to enjoy. I'll stick to coasters (woodies preferred anyway).

NTSB conference live atm.
posted by dhartung at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2014


It was perfunctory. A fuller press conference will take place this afternoon. Covered: Black box? Not known. Altitude? Not known. First time NTSB will be lead investigator on space flight accident involving fatalities (though they were participants in Challenger and Columbia investigations). Size of team? 13-15 investigators, a bit larger than usual due to expected complexity and need for specialists.
posted by dhartung at 9:17 AM on November 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


(Unless that mission is to the moon, but I assume that's not the first thing they'd do.)

No, that's the first manned mission of the SLS system will be to the Moon, though it's not clear whether it'll be circumlunar flight or to visit a captured asteroid. Current plans call for the latter, but the mission isn't a popular one, we're gonna have a new President and probably a new NASA direction in 2016, so...who knows?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:05 AM on November 1, 2014


Thank you all - I am appreciating all the links and context people are bringing to the thread here. Just for future reference, here's the Mefi thread about the other spacecraft accident this week, the Antares rocket at Wallops Island.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:25 AM on November 1, 2014


but the mission isn't a popular one

Cynically, keep in mind that the "mission" of NASA overall is "science and technology jobs in as many Congressional districts as possible."

The deceased pilot has been identified as Michael Alsbury, a married father of two with 1800 hours of flight experience. (He can be found in many Scaled Composites promotional materials.)

No, that's the first manned mission of the SLS system will be to the Moon

I personally expect the first crewed mission will be an as yet unannounced test flight, of which there will probably be several, before anything is attempted beyond Earth orbit.
posted by dhartung at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2014


I personally expect the first crewed mission will be an as yet unannounced test flight, of which there will probably be several, before anything is attempted beyond Earth orbit.

Huh, that makes a lot of sense, so I'm not going to believe it until it happens.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:08 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


> I personally expect the first crewed mission will be an as yet unannounced test flight, of which there will probably be several, before anything is attempted beyond Earth orbit.

That would be a disaster, and I'd hope SLS wouldn't escape cancellation long enough for such a thing to happen. The whole point of SLS is beyond-LEO flight. It would be an unmitigated failure for EM-1 to get downgraded to a LEO/MEO flight, or for EM-1 to reveal anything that precluded a crewed follow-up flight. I can only imagine what genuinely productive science (Mars sample return? Europa reconnaissance?) would suffer for NASA to get another $500 million to $1 billion per SLS flight to demonstrate capabilities that Delta IV can do next month.
posted by ddbeck at 1:20 PM on November 1, 2014


ddbeck your link says EM-1 would be the second crewed flight of the capsule, presumably because sane people test things nearby before sending them beyond hope of recovery. It doesn't make sense to do a LEO test of the SLS stack but there will undoubtably be unmanned tests before humans are committed to it. EM-1 will essentially be duplicating Apollo 8, but Apollo 8 was preceded by the all-LEO Apollo 7 to test the capsule and Saturn 1B upper stage stack and followed by the all-LEO Apollo 9 in order to test things like manned piloting of the LEM in space without trying to figure it out at the Moon first.
posted by localroger at 1:43 PM on November 1, 2014


The whole point of SLS is beyond-LEO flight.

Generally, it makes sense to test your BEO spacecraft in LEO. EFT-1, which is testing just the basic capsule and heat shied, will launch this December on an unmanned flight.

EM-1, launching in 2018, will test the entire Space Launch system, including the man rated launch rocket (the Delta IV rocket of EFT-1 is not manned rated), the service module and the Orion spacecraft on a circumlunar trip to test everything, including the heat shield on an actual high speed return.

EM-2 will be put people in Orion and send it on another flight. I'm not quite sure what the mission, but it'll probably be a 2-4 person mission that will enter lunar orbit for a couple of days, for one reason or another.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:20 PM on November 1, 2014


localroger, I think you misread the link. EM-1 is an uncrewed flight: the first flight (of any kind) for SLS and the second flight for the Orion capsule, after next month's EFT-1. EM-1 is supposed to be a flight analogous to Apollo 8, minus the crew.

Pretty much any SLS flight conceivable at this point would be less demanding on the crew than Apollo flights 9 through 17 (no docking, no landing, considerably better automation). Aside from EVA, I can't think of anything a crewed LEO flight could prove that wouldn't have been demonstrated on an uncrewed lunar flight (and Apollo never demoed EVA before Apollo 9, so I suspect that LEO doesn't reduce the risks associated with that). Assuming a prior uncrewed lunar flight, what would a crewed LEO flight have to show for itself?
posted by ddbeck at 2:48 PM on November 1, 2014


Aside from EVA, I can't think of anything a crewed LEO flight could prove that wouldn't have been demonstrated on an uncrewed lunar flight

Well, that the entire life support system works reliably over a week or two. If they don't, you'd want to know that when you're a couple of hours from home (Earth orbit) instead of a couple of days (lunar orbit).
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:57 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Aside from EVA, I can't think of anything a crewed LEO flight could prove that wouldn't have been demonstrated on an uncrewed lunar flight

Another reason is that there aren't any active astronauts with circumlunar experience. When the missions get more challenging, there are benefits in future crews being more familiar with the basic elements of the flight.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the particular astronauts in later missions will need to have flown, but that the earlier flown astronauts have the opportunity to convey what they learn. The Apollo missions focused on this, and it allowed for a successful lunar landing with one crew that only had about 15 minutes of spaceflight experience, none of it even in Earth orbit (Apollo 14).

Getting those experiences can make a huge difference. Manned spaceflight is risky; minimizing the number of manned spaceflights is even riskier.
posted by 1367 at 6:01 PM on November 1, 2014


It's hard to see just how much more challenging circumlunar would be than LEO. Both have communication blackouts and the lightspeed comm turnarounds are still modest at lunar distance. Other than basic skills operating the spacecraft it's all basically doing what the computer says as far as navigation, and all that's far more advanced now than it was in the 1970's. Is it even necessary for a crew to have sextant skills to acquire star positions to reset the invertial nav system as it was then? I know that did save Apollo 12 after the lightning strike crashed the CMS computer. But Apollo had a single large physical gyro subject to gimbal lock.
posted by localroger at 6:15 PM on November 1, 2014


It may be that's the case after all. Under the Constellation aegis, Orion would have served as an ISS transfer vehicle and flown numerous crewed missions prior to flying an Altair/Orion mission to the Moon using the Ares V rocket. The rescoped program eliminates almost everything that Constellation/Orion would have done while retaining roughly the major dates for these proposed missions (although the OSTP felt these dates would probably slip by several years, one of the rationales for the rescoping).
posted by dhartung at 10:25 PM on November 1, 2014


Thinking of this, I'm glad that Project Orion (not the Constellation/Orion) and the nuclear salt water projects never went anywhere. Just imagine if that accident had spread plutonium fragments downrange.
posted by happyroach at 12:27 AM on November 2, 2014


The Apollo missions focused on this, and it allowed for a successful lunar landing with one crew that only had about 15 minutes of spaceflight experience, none of it even in Earth orbit (Apollo 14).

That crew was supposed to be on Apollo 13, but was pushed back because higher ups felt the commander, Alan Shepard, needed more time training. There's also a lot of speculation that Deke Slayton submitted that crew with the hopes that he, as a grounded astronaut, would be able to pull off the similar feat of virtually unflown commander leading a crew of rookies on a lunar mission. It's worth noting that no other Apollo mission had such rookie crew. Of the three crews following 14, all of them had Commanders who had flown multiple flights, and two of them had commanders who had already been to the Moon.

But Apollo had a single large physical gyro subject to gimbal lock.

Actually it had three . Which is odd, 'cause the Gemini spacecraft had four, which were immune to gimbal lock. I guess the three for Apollo was a weight/space issue. No idea how many Orion has.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:48 AM on November 2, 2014


Actually Brandon I misspoke using the shorthand "gyro" for the entire Inertial Measurement Unit, which had three internal gyros. Gemini's IMU had four gyros, which is why it was immune to gimbal lock. I distinctly remember that at least one of the Apollo astronauts was deeply pissed about the decision to use a three-axis IMU, which he thought was an inappropriately dangerous way to save a few kilograms.
posted by localroger at 7:45 AM on November 2, 2014


Yeah, it was probably Mike Collins who was complaining about it in his book, when Mission Control was warning him about the CMD drifting towards gimbal lock.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:07 AM on November 2, 2014


Peter Siebold is reported to be awake and speaking. So that's a very good sign.
posted by Justinian at 8:32 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also in the good news department, China's test flight for a Lunar Sample Return mission was successful!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:20 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


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posted by one weird trick at 11:37 AM on November 2, 2014


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posted by TrinsicWS at 8:13 PM on November 2, 2014


The NTSB has just finished a press conference (and they recapped it on their own Twitter account) in which they provided "statements of fact" and not "statements of cause". It was surprising.

NTSB found fuel and oxidizer tanks intact and the engine intact, without showing signs that they were ruptured. They described how there's two steps for SpaceShipTwo's feathered wing configuration, a control to unlock the feathering capability and another control that actually causes the wings to feather. NTSB has seen cockpit video showing that the copilot moved the feather unlock handle nine seconds after engine ignition, around Mach 1.0, which is earlier than expected (supposed to happen around Mach 1.4). Two seconds later, the wings moved—even though neither pilot moved the feather handle—and SpaceShipTwo broke up.

So this introduces pilot error and/or mechanical failure as potential causes, as opposed to propulsion.
posted by ddbeck at 9:04 PM on November 2, 2014 [3 favorites]


All the grar and speculation about rocket engine designs above and it turns out that the engines are probably not the cause.
posted by humanfont at 7:26 AM on November 3, 2014


I think its a bit early for "probables". The engine design could be a contributing factor to pilot error or a mechanical failure - for example, if excessive or unplanned-for vibration contributed to a mechanical failure in another system.
posted by muddgirl at 7:30 AM on November 3, 2014


Muddgirl beat me to it. All we know now is that the engine didn't explode; that doesn't mean it didn't shake the craft apart.
posted by localroger at 9:41 AM on November 3, 2014


"Actually the wings spontaneously turn into a break" isn't that great either, and the concerns raised before the crash don't go away.
posted by Artw at 9:46 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


NTSB: SpaceShipTwo broke apart when “feathering” activated early
Investigation will also see if pressure to launch played a role in pilot’s death.
As to eyewitness reports of an "explosion," Hart pointed out that the NTSB had recovered SpaceShipTwo’s intact fuel and oxidizer tanks, along with its rocket motor. None showed any signs of burn-through or other evidence that an explosion had occurred. The loss of SpaceShipTwo appears to have been wholly due to the unplanned change in the vehicle’s configuration, not to the hybrid engine.

Determining the "how" of a craft’s destruction is often relatively easy compared to determining the "why," and it is that latter task that will occupy the NTSB’s attention.

"We’ll be looking at training issues," said Hart. "We’ll be looking at 'was there pressure to continue testing?' We’ll be looking at safety culture. We’ll be looking at the design, the procedures—we’ve got many, many issues to look into much more extensively before we can determine the cause."
posted by XMLicious at 10:51 AM on November 3, 2014


Huh. If you told me in advance that Spaceship Two was going to be lost I would not have given very good odds that the accident would not involve the rocket exploding or otherwise breaking up. It does sound like the cause is going to come down to a combination of pilot and mechanical error. The copilot reportedly move the lock/unlock lever to the unlock position too early but that shouldn't have engaged the feathers without another lever being moved, which reportedly did not occur. So perhaps the vibrations engaged the feathers without the actual command to engage the feathers being sent... but that was only possible because they were unlocked prematurely.

It's almost never one single thing causing accidents.
posted by Justinian at 2:41 AM on November 4, 2014


The lever problem made me think of the death of John Denver, which the NTSB investigation attributed to its inaccessibility and user interface expert Tog attributed to its modified installation. Then I realized that the common thread here was Burt Rutan. It's too soon to be sure, of course, but what a weird legacy if it is.
posted by dhartung at 4:02 PM on November 4, 2014


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