National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart told reporters on Sunday that the tail of SpaceShip Two lifted prematurely, after the pilot changed the aerodynamic controls of the aircraft. This introduced pilot error into the realm of possibility for the cause of the incident.
Hart said that at Mach 1.4, two levers were supposed to be pulled by the pilots. This action was supposed to raise the tail in a process called feathering, which would slow descent and create drag. However, video from the cockpit showed one of the levers was pulled early, at Mach 1.0. About two seconds later, the tail became extended, while the second feathering lever wasn't moved. "Pilot error is a possibility," Hart told the press. "We're a long way from finding cause."
The L.A. Times reports the plane's fuel tanks, oxidizer tanks and engine were located and found intact by NTSB investigators on Sunday, with no signs of unintended burning, breach or explosion. Critics of the Virgin Galactic program had voiced concerns about the company's use of nitrous oxide in its rockets.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides also told the press that a second SpaceShip Two was already under construction prior to the incident, with completion expected by the end of this year. Whitesides said, "We need to work closely with the NTSB … to work out as rapidly as we can what happened, and then to move forward. We're hopeful we can make rapid progress." The company issued another statement on Sunday that said:
"We are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our 'North Star.' This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue. ... Everything we do is to pursue the vision of accessible and democratized space – and to do it safely."
Virgin Galactic has spent about $500 Million on trying to make commercial space tourism a reality, and is years past its originally-planned start of service. They have reaffirmed their commitment to see the project through to its goal.
Images via Associated Press