Better training and technical safeguards might have prevented the co-pilot’s actions that resulted in Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crash last year, federal transportation officials said on Tuesday.
SpaceShipTwo — designed by aerospace company Scaled Composites — crashed in October during a test flight above California's Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury and injuring pilot Pete Siebold. The accident put a damper on Virgin Galactic's hopes that it would start offering suborbital space tourist flights next year for as much as $250,000 a pop.
On Tuesday, at a press conference in Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it determined that SpaceShipTwo crashed because the co-pilot unlocked the feather system, meant to slow down the vehicle, too early. It also determined that Scaled Composites' failure to "protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic error to his vehicle" was something that "set the stage" for the accident.
Ideally, the co-pilot would have unlocked the system after the spacecraft reached Mach 1.4 but before it reached Mach 1.8 — the latter of which would have forced the mission to be aborted.
Scaled Composites admitted that it knew that unlocking the feather system too early was a "catastrophic hazard." Although pilots knew about the risk, the only documented warnings occurred three years before the ill-fated test flight through email and a PowerPoint presentation.
NTSB questioned why the danger of unlocking the system too early wasn't stressed more during training or prevented with technological safeguards.
"I do not mean this flippantly because I have made plenty of mistakes, but humans will screw up anything if you give them enough opportunities," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt. "I do not mean that with any disrespect to the crew. The fact is that a mistake was made and often times a mistake is a symptom of a flawed system."
In response to the NTSB's findings, Virgin CEO Richard Branson noted that a mechanism has been installed in the next SpaceShipTwo that prevents the feather system from being unlocked too early.
"We are thankful to the NTSB for conducting and completing a thorough investigation — as well as for the clarity of their findings and recommendations, all of which will help make the fledgling commercial space industry safer and better," Branson said in a statement.
The NTSB also scrutinized the regulatory process that led up to the accident. The design and testing process was overseen by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
Although the NTSB found Scaled Composites to be very cooperative and open, AST management often filtered the technical questions posed by its own staff because they believed "those questions were not relevant to public safety," according to NTSB investigator Katherine Wilson.
In 2013, the FAA voiced concerns that Scaled Composites "did not fully comply with the human and software error requirements" required for its permit from the agency. Soon after, the FAA issued a waiver excusing Scaled Composites from those requirements, even though the company had never asked for it.
In the end, the NTSB recommended giving more time for regulators to get know the experimental spacecraft they are charged with overseeing; more thorough regulations that take human error into account; and the creation of a database for commercial spacecraft operators to compare errors and safety issues.
"Commercial space travel is close to fulfillment," said NTSB chairman Christopher Hart. "For such flights to proceed safely, commercial space transportation must continue to evolve and mature."
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the NTSB's findings regarding the cause of the accident.
NBCUniversal established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo.