A cockpit design that made it possible for one human error to result in a catastrophic crash was mainly to blame for the destruction of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo last October, which resulted in the death of the co-pilot and injury to the pilot, the NTSB concluded on Tuesday. The board also spent some time discussing whether the co-pilot’s action, in prematurely unlocking the tail, was part of the probable cause or not. After a half-hour break, the board proposed a revised probable cause, which noted that the co-pilot’s action initiated the break-up. The board also found the co-pilot was not using a written checklist, and was working under time pressure while experiencing vehicle vibration and G-loads.
The board also found that by not considering the possibility of human error in its safety analysis, Scaled Composites, which developed and built the spacecraft, missed the chance to mitigate it. The company’s training didn’t ensure that pilots adequately understood the risks of unlocking the feather early, the board said. Also the company should develop better accident-response procedures that would make better use of helicopter assets and also better train flight crews in the use of parachutes. As a result of the investigation, the FAA will develop a database of safety data for the commercial space industry. “The success of commercial space travel depends on the safety of commercial space travel,” said board chairman Christopher Hart, in his concluding remarks.
More details about the investigation and conclusions are posted at the NTSB website.