Human Space Travel

Mojave to Mars… via the Way of the Dead

by Mary Bennett

Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo

Update August 2015 – Final NTSB report, associated articles and commentary next page

X marks the spot
X does mark the spot

In the barren New Mexico desert, just over two miles east of the Jornada del Muerto (the Way of the Dead, and so named by the Spanish Conquistadors crossing this 100 mile stretch of desert connecting their outposts) Virgin Galactic has built a Spaceport for its suborbital adventures and its tenants – some of whom are already carrying out experimental flights.

For The SpaceShip Company (Virgin Galactic and its partner Scaled Composites) hoping to offer space tourism with their SpaceShipTwo (SS2), progress has been slower, and the principles upon which human space flight is based were called into question when, on October 31 2014, the SS2 test flight ended in tragedy.

The craft, beginning its climb to space in the skies over their Californian Mojave desert test base, and accelerating to some 900mph – disintegrated, killing one test pilot and severely injuring another.

SS2’s failure occurred at around 59,000ft (11.18m/18km). This is well short of both the 264,000ft (50m /80.46km) altitude at which the USAF and NASA confer Astronaut status, and the geophysical definition of space at 320,083ft which is (62.137 miles /100km) and known as the Kármán line1.

Virgin Galactic’s website asserts that SS2 “is designed to reach altitudes above both these thresholds” and the company intends to take its astronauts up to 360,000ft (68miles/110km).

Earth's atmosphere

Although Virgin Galactic and its partner Scaled Composites (generally referred to as Scaled) are considered to be privately funded2, the US government’s space agency issued a statement of condolence and appended it with:

“While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration. Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”

A sentiment somewhat at odds with the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS). Critical of SS2’s rocket engine as well as of the safety protocols surrounding its testing, the IAASS engineers had contacted both Virgin Galactic and the US authorities over their concerns.

Virgin’s October 31 2014 accident came only three days after the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s (known as Orbital) Antares rocket exploded above the launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) site at Wallops Island, Virginia. NASA described this incident as a ‘mishap’, perhaps downplaying the severity of the incident due to the fact that unlike Virgin Galactic, Orbital was under contract to NASA.

However, the agency did take the opportunity to point out the ‘incredible difficulty’ of using rockets.

“Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”

NASA’s contrived acronyms and all previous rocket disasters aside, two events within three days begs the question as to whether it might be time to rethink how we actually propel ourselves into space, other than via the 'blood and thunder' methods adopted since WW2, for once again rocket elements were the critical factor in the Antares mishap.

A Blast From The Past

Since the demise of the Space Shuttle, NASA is almost completely reliant on the Russian space administration to get its payloads and crews to the ISS and back, and Russian rocket technology has consistently been proven to be more than adequate for the job. Orbital was using Russian technology in its Antares rockets, and yet for this ’mishap’ NASA-Orbital were quick to blame the so-called ‘old’ Russian-built NK-33 engines. These were originally developed for the Soviet N-1 Moon rocket. Had these engines had been so old or badly stored in Russia prior to their sale as to be useless, the American Aerojet company would not have bothered to buy forty of them in the 1990s, at any price.

In response to these assertions, the Russians pointed out that the Americans had made ‘significant modifications’ to the original design and by transforming it from an NK-33 into an AJ-26 turned it from a reliable engine into a ‘test’ engine not yet proven to be of flight status.

A Fine Example

In many ways, NASA sets the example for the emerging so-called ‘private’ space industry so it is hardly surprising that when something goes wrong, this practise of taking no responsibility and blaming one’s partner has been imitated by the private companies, including Virgin Galactic. First off the mark to associate itself with Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites3 when Rutan won the $10million Ansari XPrize in 2004. Virgin Galactic was also first to distance itself from its partner company when things went wrong – as they did on July 26 2007.

Disaster in the Desert

During a cold flow test run for SS2 by Scaled Composites three men died and three more were seriously injured when the tank filled with 10,000lbs of Nitrous Oxide exploded. Virgin Galactic (perhaps in the hopes of damage limitation and adverse publicity) was quick to point out that it wasn’t involved. Although this was technically true, if Virgin Galactic was not physically represented at the site while the test was running and these men were not on Virgin’s payroll – morally, of course they were involved.

Rutan’s company would not have been testing these rocket engines if Branson’s company was not dedicated to getting out into space. The much-lauded fraternity of space explorers does not look good when seen through this lens. Some six years later, Branson had perhaps understood this point when he modified his attitude slightly (but not entirely) during an interview with journalist Jon Ronson concerning the Virgin Galactic project, and published in The Guardian on February 21 2014.

Safety v Adventure

Branson’s PR machine states that ‘safety has always been our number one priority’, ‘our north star’ as the website puts it; during an earlier 2006 interview with Rutan said:

“The focus was on safety, on recurring cost, and asking the question: When we're done with this, if it worked, could it lead right into flying the public? Could it be safe? I don't think that's been done to go to orbit.”

Yet the results of the enquiry into the July 26 2007 accident would contradict both men. It was found that the workers involved did not have adequate training for the job they were undertaking and that Scaled had breached five specific health and safety rules for which it was fined over $25,000. None of the experts consulted got to the bottom of the cause of the accident, and the relatives of the men who died in 2007 were told that it had been a ‘one in half a million accident’ – inferring perhaps that it was so abnormal as to be completely unpredictable, and therefore unavoidable.

Scaled made little public comment other than to claim ignorance as to the dangers of Nitrous Oxide and continued using it when rocket motor testing resumed in 2009.

Hindsight is a wonder fuel thing

However, it is quite possible that this 2007 accident did stress Burt Rutan considerably, as by the end of that year an existing heart problem had escalated into severity, requiring surgery – which would hamper him for at least another eight months. Years later, during the Ronson interview, Richard Branson would affirm the stress caused to Burt, when he said "It turned Burt Rutan from a young man into an old man overnight. He'd never lost anybody in his life.”

And although officially retired, Rutan also spoke to Jon Ronson and was even prepared to talk about the N2O accident. Burt said that ‘a combination of some very unusual things’ had occurred during ‘a very routine test’. He made a point of volunteering to Ronson that Scaled had not distanced itself from the people involved:

“…We wrapped ourselves in the families. We told them the truth from the start. None of them sued us. Each of those families is a friend of the company. And that has a lot to say about something that I'm most proud of in my career, and that is how to run a business from an ethical standpoint."

The Halloween Anomaly

SS2SS2 Concept – Virgin Galactic

The history of rocketry has numerous examples of rockets blowing up on the launch pad, or in space, but this 2007 cold flow N2O test had been conducted on the ground and as such it was classed as an industrial accident.

As a result of the ‘routine nomenclature’ and also as a result of being well managed by the Virgin media teams, that tragic incident didn't create quite the media furore of this latest Virgin Galactic Halloween disaster.

So when Richard Branson again played down the implications of the second major disaster to hit his Virgin project – he initially explained away the SS2 October 2014 failure as ‘a serious anomaly’ – one has to wonder when public relations, damage limitation and the morphing of serious engineering issues into ‘the Adventures of Jules Verne on Steroids’ will stop masking the very real problems of rocketry? Not anytime soon would seem to be the answer.

Back to the Future

Partly as a result of that 2007 ‘industrial accident’, important modifications were made to the hybrid propulsion system and by the time SS2 flew, even the fuel mix had been changed. Although the root cause of the second major accident to hit these two companies is not yet ascertained, and it is stated that the fuel tanks were intact therefore not the cause of the disintegration of the ship – it is of interest to have a look at the issues involved with the fuels used by Virgin Galactic, since the new hybrid propulsion system had been tested on the ground but was flown for the first time on the fatal SS2 Halloween flight.


A hybrid rocket motor is a cross between a solid and a liquid fuelled system. Its advantage over a totally solid fuel engine is that a hybrid system is controllable. For an understanding of hybrid rocket motor systems see this overview, and this one written by guest author Carolynne Campbell-Knight on November 1, 2014, these contain clear explanations among which:

“The basic idea is to inject a liquid oxidizer into a fuel grain that consists only of fuel, and that cannot sustain combustion on its own. The motor is controlled (throttled up and down or shut off) by controlling the flow of liquid oxidizer into the combustion chamber. Typically the combustion chamber is a long cylinder lined with a fuel composed of hydrocarbons (HTPB, kerosene, plastics of various types, amongst many other possibilities)."

Hybrid rocket motor

Hybrid Rocket Motor – Jonny Dyer

But it’s No Laughing Matter

The common link between the two fuel systems being used is the use of Nitrous Oxide N2O (aka laughing gas). SS1 and SS2 (up until October 7 2014) flew N2O in conjunction with a solid fuel grain HTPB (Hydroxyl Terminated Polybutadiene) which is basically rubber. Testing the hybrid rocket motor on SS1 revealed that it wasn't possible to burn the rubber mix for longer than 20 seconds, as it produced an uneven burn which resulted in severe vibrations and oscillations. With an extraordinary bit of timing, on the eve of the Halloween flight, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier had published a history of Virgin and Scaled’s efforts thus far. Of the HTPB/N2O hybrid motor he wrote:

“The motor ran rough, shaking the ship due to the uneven burning of the rubber. On one flight, the pilot heard a loud bang and feared the ship’s tail had been blown off. It turned out to be a chunk of rubber that had shot out the nozzle. The tail was still there.”

Critic’s Corner

N2O HTPB rubber burn

Richard Branson asserted that the rubber fuel is not toxic, while a serving NASA astronaut (who therefore has to be nameless) has observed that burning rubber at 50,000ft is toxic for the environment, and that using Nitrous Oxide is in any case, dangerous.

With this last point he is in agreement with the findings of the engineers from the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS). This group were particularly concerned about the use of Nitrous Oxide, also considering it extremely dangerous. Despite having flagged the issue to Virgin Galactic since the 2007 accident, and again with a specific study in 2010, there was no change of policy at Virgin Galactic. The IAASS were also dismayed by the lack of communication. Those at Virgin Galactic kept themselves to themselves.

The executive director of IAASS and former head of safety at the European Space Agency Tommaso Sgobba said that representatives of Virgin Galactic would not attend IAASS meetings, there had been no independent oversight, the company declined to have its rocket design peer-reviewed and refused to share information with industry experts outside the company.

All of these circumstances meant that in Sgobba’s opinion, as he had been saying for some years, there was an accident waiting to happen.

I’m late, I’m late …

There has also been much criticism of Virgin Galactic and its Scaled Composites partner that in attempting to stick to much publicised, but already flagging launch schedules, it is a case of trying to go too far, too soon. Again the private sector is merely imitating their government seniors, for NASA did the very same thing. Taking only one example: in attempting to fulfil its self–appointed launch obligations to its clients, and apparently under some pressure from the Reagan White House, decisions were made which went against all prevailing common sense and surpassed the engineering possibilities of the machines it had commissioned. The result was the loss of the Shuttle Challenger and its crew.

… for a very important date

No matter how dangerous space exploration is, surely such pressures uniquely down to human estimations of the values of time, money and pride should not be a part of the mix? Nor should the fact that using rocket fuels for space exploration is inherently dangerous be used as a justification for sloppy practice. However, The SpaceShip Company’s sliding schedules were being noted in the British media ever more sardonically. Private Eye’s running commentary on Virgin Galactic’s progress, ‘Beam us up Beardie’, probably didn’t help4 and any complications found in scaling up the spacecraft from SS1 to SS2 would surely add to the pressures on Virgin Galactic’s PR machine and Scaled’s engineers.

Scaling Up

If Burt Rutan had intended to carry on test flying SS1 to improve his systems he didn’t get the chance. SS1 was a high altitude research rocket designed to put three people into space twice in two weeks with a reusable spacecraft and win the US$10 million Ansari XPrize – and this it did. It consisted basically of Rutan’s special feathering wing system attached to a fuselage which incorporated the principles of a missile – in that it consisted mostly rocket motors and fuel – with a small cabin up front. It wasn’t something that you would want Angelina to fly in, as one of Scaled Composite’s engineers had put it.

However, there were to be no more test flights to iron out the several single point failures within the SS1 systems as Rutan’s financier Paul Allen had accepted the offer from the Smithsonian to include SS1 in its permanent exhibition, and it was immediately retired from active service. That meant that after the XPrize, when Virgin Galactic was in the frame and everything was changing, there was no incremental change up to SS2 – it was one giant leap, for a machine.

Side view SS1
Side view of SS1 – the rocket motor occupies 2/3rds the length of the fuselage – Scaled Composites

The SS2 went onto the drawing board a completely different beast. At 60ft wingtip to nose cone it's over twice as long as the SS1, and designed to carry a crew of two and either six passengers, or the equivalent in payload.


Consequently in order to reach Virgin Galactic’s intended parabolic flight target of some 70 miles, it took much more energy to get it there. The rubber/Nitrous Oxide mix was not up to the job in any respect, as so far SS2 had only reached only 1,100mph and a maximum height of 71,000ft. (some 13m/21.6km).

Doug Messier also writes that in 2009 when testing began again after the 2007 accident:

“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.”

It took them another five years of experimenting before they publicly announced in May 2014 that the contract with Sierra Nevada Corporation had been terminated and the rocket engine fuel development taken in-house:

“Virgin Galactic and its partner firm Scaled Composites said they would switch from using a rubber-based solid fuel burned in a stream of nitrous oxide, [N2O/HTPB] which had caused engine instabilities in earlier test flights, to a plastic-based solid fuel called thermoplastic polyamide also burned in nitrous oxide. It was claimed the new fuel would be more reliable and more powerful.” [emphasis added]

Indeed, Virgin Galactic expected to gain a fivefold altitude increase from its new fuel grain and thus achieve the 360,000ft/ 70m/110km mark).

Be still, my beating heart

But scaling up the hybrid motor system was not the only problem. Doug Messier wrote:

“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.”

A fact with which Brian Binnie, former a test pilot for Scaled on SS1 agreed. He left Scaled in April 2014 to join XCOR*, a company using a liquid fuel system. At a meeting of the Explorer’s Club on October 25 2014 Binnie explained that the hold ups at SS2 were due to scaling issues, adding that “In nature, the size of the heart organ scales along a precise curve, from a rabbit to a lion to an elephant. But the design of the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor was not 'on the curve'."

Stu Witt, ex US Navy fighter pilot and CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port, while welcoming the Virgin Galactic project for its flamboyant potential to turn around the space industry, and not least put his outfit on the map, also observed that scaling up directly from SS1 to SS2 was risky; he compared it to going from building the Kitty Hawk to building a DC3 in a single step.

Divergent paths

Could it be that the decision to take the fuel design in-house was the final straw? The last of a series of issues which had emerged along the way, affecting the human relationships within these two companies? As far back as 2006 during the interview with Rutan had said that apart from safety, His biggest concern was investment money ‘getting chicken’ on the courage to take risk and to move forward to tackle issues. I felt that Branson was making commitments so that he, even without me, had to finish it”.

This ‘without me’ perhaps put into context when one learns that by July 2007 Rutan was deep into negotiating the sale of the 60% share of Scaled and (disaster notwithstanding) on 27 August he closed the deal with aviation giant Northrop Grumman, owner of the remaining 40% of Scaled since 2000. Scaled effectively became the Northrop Grumman’s advanced development programs (ADP) base. Which is somewhat poetic, since Rutan, who went from President to Chief Technical Officer, had a management style modelled on the 14 rules of Kelly Johnson, founder of Lockheed Martin’s own ADP unit ‘Skunk Works’.

In that same 2006 interview Will Whitehorn (then President of Virgin Galactic) is quoted as saying:

"I don't believe Sir Richard would have shown the amazing vision he had to back the risk capital in SpaceshipTwo's early development phase, if it had not been Burt and Scaled behind the XPrize-winning vehicle [SS1] on which our beautiful commercial vehicles are based."

Which is not quite the same thing.

Design by Committee?

Rutan had told Ronson that any delays over the last decade, [2004-2014] were not only due to the rocket motor design complexity but also due the fact that Virgin Galactic is full of ‘smart people’. Jon Ronson says that by ‘smart people’ Rutan meant that there were far too many committees over at Virgin Galactic. Remembering Burt’s friendship with Ben Rich, Kelly’s successor at Skunk Works, and Kelly Johnson’s opinion of committees, I thought this a clever way of conveying a completely different message to the one on paper. Kelly’s opinion relative to advanced aerospace projects was crystal clear:

“Committees, with no experience beyond their own specialties, would make more and more future decisions, the trouble was that they never did anything completely wrong, but they never did anything brilliant either.”

A Case of the Smarts

I thought Rutan’s comment even more interesting when recalling another part of the Ronson/ Branson interview. Branson had told Ronson that starting up ‘a spaceship company’ was not dissimilar to any other enterprise he had started. He gave the example of Virgin Atlantic – he knew nothing about running an airline but thought he could do better than British Airways, so he got a man who did know about running airlines and then surrounded him with creative people specifically not from the airline world ‘to shake up the business’.

Taking the analogy to his spaceship enterprise is not difficult. Author Tom Bower, writing in Branson, Behind the Mask (admittedly there is no love lost between Branson and Bower) thought that appointing his top media mogul Will Whitehorn as President of Virgin Galactic, a man with no engineering qualifications, made the point.

Fly it high, Sell it dear

I wonder if Branson’s business model which appears to be ‘dream it up, bring it about, then onwards to the next dream’ was actually a gift to those exploring the so-called private arm of space travel. He brought the confidence of his earlier aviation activities, dressed the front office with glitz and glam, attracted other investors and put celebrity bums on seats. He made the whole set up look ‘entrepreneurial, adventurous and kept the dream of human space flight alive by driving a tight timeline while smiling a lot. The engineers in the back office would actually supply the goods. It should have been a perfect match of money, opportunity and ambition. Then, when the goods couldn’t match the glossy CGI timeline, perhaps the dream turned into a nightmare, jolting The Spaceship Company bedfellows awake and sending them running.

Departure Gate

Scrolling back to 2010, the year after the resumption of hybrid engine tests, there was a significant changing of the guard – at both Virgin Galactic and Scaled. On December 23 2010 and somewhat overlooked by the media in the run up to Christmas, Virgin Galactic quietly announced that media whizz Will Whitehorn (with the Virgin Group since 1987 and President of Virgin Galactic since 2004) was leaving ‘to concentrate on other business interests’.

This announcement sounds very much like a variation of the politician’s ‘leaving to spend more time with his family’. Whitehorn would be replaced by Whitesides. Having been appointed as full time CEO in 2010, George Whitesides would take up the role of President in January 2011.

This Virgin Galactic announcement came hot on the heels of the November 2010 announcement from Scaled Composites stating that Burt Rutan would be retiring in 2011. Given the issues over the fuel mix for SS2, the fact that the press release on was dated November 5th – the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' failed gunpowder plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament – was a nice touch. As was the date of Burt’s actual retirement to north Idaho. It was announced on on April 1st 2011 – April Fool’s day.

Boarding Pass

Stratolaunch Systems

As it turns out, Rutan’s own website features a home page which states that since retirement he is not involved in anything other than giving lectures. Whereas his biography page states that in 2011 he joined the board of Stratolaunch Systems, founded by Paul Allen, (Rutan’s financial partner in the creation of SS1). With its corporate HQ in Huntsville Alabama, Stratolaunch Systems is partnered by – guess who?

Orbital Sciences Corporation and Scaled Composites. keeping it in the family, and as it turns out, the plans for this hefty start-up of a “private orbital space platform business” were already drawn up – guess when? In 2010, the year before its public launch. To assume that Burt has fully retired from designing aircraft of any sort, might indeed be somewhat foolish.

Beyond the pale …

With the top men from each company departed, if that weren't enough change at the heart of these ‘private’ companies trying to develop launchers and manned craft to orbit, prior to the October 31 2014 Virgin Galactic/Scaled accident, three other top executives quit the Virgin Galactic project – two from Virgin and one from Scaled.

Burt Rutan’s philosophy is that the best ideas come from the collaborative efforts of small, closely-knit project teams (SkunkWorks rule no.3) and an environment unconstrained by adversity to risk. From this it follows that when he is credited with having built SS2, Burt Rutan is the first to say that it was actually Jim Tighe, Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Scaled who should get the credit for its design.

Rutan thought Tighe to be a better engineer than himself. So how could it be that that on September 26 2014, a month before the Halloween test flight, to the shock and disbelief of many within the industry, Jim Tighe, with over a decade at Scaled, left his job with only two weeks notice? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that having built the SS2 to one specification it was then necessary to start over – due to that fuel change. Doug Messier had reported in June 2014:

“SS2 has undergone modifications over the last five months, including the installation of tanks in the wings, sources report. One tank will hold methane, which will be used when the nitrous oxide-nylon engine is fired to ensure a proper burn. The other tank will hold helium, which will be injected at the end of the burn to ensure a smoother shutdown, sources say.” [emphasis added]

… and the perimeter fence

These additional tanks, (using fuels not generally mentioned when discussing the new hybrid system) underline the fact that there were issues with the burn and probably vibrational issues as a result. Given the tragic results of the first powered flight using this new fuel cocktail, test pilot Brian Binnie’s decision to leave in April 2014 makes even more sense. It also makes sense of the many rumours that Jim Tighe’s decision to leave was due to his powerlessness to stop flight tests going ahead prematurely. Had he been obliged to modify his original design (built around an engine in the orthodox manner) in order to accommodate the new N2O thermo-polyamide rocket fuel system – which can’t have been performing satisfactorily otherwise there would have been no need for those extra fuels and thus adding tanks – in the wings. And if Tighe was unhappy with this outcome and unable to make himself heard, who can blame him for leaving?

The swiftness of his departure surely sent a red alert about SS2’s condition. Or perhaps not. It seemed that no one flinched when, from within Virgin Galactic the Vice President for Safety, Jon Turnipseed, left in December 2013 and Thomas Markusic the VP of Propulsion left in January 2014. In the light of the additional modifications to the fuels and the wings their departures make sense as well.

The Three Ps

Given the positions that these departing men occupied, and taken together with Burt Rutan’s philosophy, as well as observation on committees, it could be that the decision to bring in house the further development of SS2’s rocket fuel system was considered ill-advised. With Branson slipping backwards in his own schedules one must ask if the pressure to launch was also considered unacceptably risky by these men?

If the departure of three/four senior executives from an outfit trying to achieve suborbital flights (so nowhere very much in terms of space travel) in the last few months of 2014 were not linked to the ramifications of that decision to change fuel systems – then it is all the more remarkable that together with the earlier departures of PR man Whitehorn and Chief Technical Engineer Rutan those who had left the company were in charge of Propulsion, Safety and Aerodynamics together with a pilot who had to sit on top of the fuel.

It would be nice to think that their departures were a tangible sign of the necessity for complete conceptual renewal in the domain of Propulsion, Protection and Performance before anyone else is killed. It certainly leads to reflection on the roots of this Halloween disaster.

Pogo is No Go

Noting that the rocket fuel systems were changed and the casings reconfigured in part due to engine combustion instabilities, could it be that the October 31 accident is related the Pogo effect? NASA experienced the Pogo problem with Saturn V launches. An Apollo 10 crew member Gene Cernan described a Saturn V launch as ‘absolutely scary’. At ignition the crew were buffeted by vibrations which rifled their way vertically up through the booster. Next came the sharp jolt of the S-II second stage, which almost propelled them head-first into Charlie Brown’s instrument panel, "… and then the first worrisome signs of ‘pogo’ arose."

Pogo was an intense, low-frequency longitudinal oscillation, which rippled up through the body of the Saturn rocket, causing it to ‘bounce’ violently, like a giant pogo stick. The ignition of the Saturn’s second stage, the S-II, came with a noticeable wham, which slammed the astronauts back into their seats.

“But the pogo stayed with us, worse than ever, as another million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen… burned hot and hard for seven minutes and we accelerated with breathtaking speed."

This acceleration was accompanied by disturbing moans and creaks from the rocket, as its metal strained under excessive pogo forces. Stafford, Young, and Cernan could feel the effect, 20 stories beneath them, but could see nothing. Had the pogo damaged their spacecraft?”

And crew member Thomas Stafford recalled that: “The engineers had shaved 20,000 pounds of metal out of the S-IC, making the booster walls more flexible and more prone to pogo. Also, there was a ground stabilization bar inside the cockpit that connected our crew couches to the rear bulkhead. It was supposed to be removed before launch, but somebody forgot. The bar magnified the pogo!”

Shake it all up

Admittedly the Saturn V was a good bit more powerful than either SS1 or SS2. But even the smaller two-stage configuration of the Saturn V, used in May 1973 to take Skylab into orbit, suffered from such powerful oscillations generated within the compression chamber that it resulted in the partial destruction of Skylab.

The SS2 engines were found to be intact at the crash site which makes the pogo problem an even more likely candidate for its disintegration. If, as a result of firing the SS2 engines to achieve the desired thrust, oscillations were set up within the combustion chamber resulting in vibrations which destroyed the integrity of the structure itself, these same vibrations could have also affected the feathering system’s mechanics. Especially since there were fuel tanks within the wings.

This problem of oscillation or engine instability doesn’t alter the fact that Nitrous Oxide is a dangerous fuel, and not esteemed by rocket scientists as an oxidizer, I emphasise that this pogo hypothesis is based on previous events in the world of rocketry and the experiences of Rutan’s spaceplane test pilots – and it can only be speculation until all the necessary investigations into the SS2 disaster are completed (which might well take a year).

Enter the NTSB

My reservations in this regard are not upheld by The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). It has stated that until all the data is collected no conclusions could be drawn as to the cause of this accident, yet within days of this SS2 Halloween Day disaster, the NTSB did not practice what it so devoutly preaches when it strongly implied that the co-pilot Michael Alsbury had made an error resulting in the premature ‘feathering’ of the wing system.

This statement was enough to provoke Dr. Klaus Siebold, an experienced pilot and flight instructor, and father of the surviving pilot Peter Siebold, to give an interview to the British press which was published on the November 8, three days before NTSB posted an update of their preliminary investigation.

Dr. Siebold stated that the systems as they were designed precluded the possibility of the pilot error imputed to Michael Alsbury, and that if the disintegration of the ship was eventually attributed to an issue with the switching system – as already inferred by NTSB – it had to be a mechanical error not a pilot error. He added “It’s really irresponsible for the NTSB to suggest a possible explanation for the accident with months of investigation still to come.”

Feathered Re-entryFeathered re-entry – Virgin Galactic

Ruffled Feathers

Virgin Galactic had copied the NTSB stating that:

"The NTSB indicated that the lock/unlock lever was pulled prematurely based on recorded speed at the time, and they have suggested that subsequent aero- dynamic forces then deployed the feathering mechanism, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the wings and vehicle.”

The feather system lever protocols had been tested in flight and behaved perfectly. This statement from Virgin Galactic infers blame on the pilot since it does not make it clear that not one, but two separate actions were required to result in the feathering system being activated.

Then, perhaps covering all bases, it infers that the second lever (which actually deploys the feather system) moved all by itself under the influence of pressures within the cabin. Which is either magic or a serious mechanical failure.

Except that ‘pressures within the cabin’ can be translated as Pogo.

Damage limitation – again…

Later, and still prior to interviewing Peter Siebold, Christopher Hart the NTSB’s acting chairman would state: “This was what we would call an uncommanded feather, which means the feather occurred without the feather lever being moved into the feather position.” So inferring blame on the deceased co-pilot was somewhat unnecessary – but it did buy time, and perhaps in the same vein, immediately after this accident, Sir Richard Branson sticking to his tried and tested mode of distancing himself and Virgin Galactic from trouble, made things worse indicating that he did not really know Michael Alsbury. When images of him with Alsbury emerged on YouTube he was obliged to reconfigure his sentences in that regard.

…and again

Configuring sentences was at a premium however, when he was interviewed by John Snow of Channel 4 News (UK) on November 3 2014. John Snow asked if he was passing blame for the accident onto the manufacturers of the spaceship. Barely able to string two words together Branson said: “I’ve certainly never dumped blame on anybody,” citing the NTSB as being those in charge of making the eventual decision as to the cause of the accident. He then called Scaled Composites, Scaled Deposits – no doubt the matter of all those celebrities’ $250,000 deposits was uppermost in his mind. When asked about the departure of key people from his project and the criticisms of the IASS, unable to deny the facts of either matter, Branson instead reproached John Snow for the very insulting tone of his questions, and waffled replies that did not address the questions asked by Snow.

By November 9 we were back in familiar damage limitation territory when his President of Virgin Galactic, George Whiteside, made this statement on CNN Money:

“We’re heartened by the findings around the, er the conditions of the motor and I think that umm, if it does become, er focused on er, human procedures then there, er, will be straightforward ways in which we can deal with that … make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Wizards of Biz-Boz

If the notion of taking wealthy paying customers up for a sub orbital joyride bites the dust due to technical issues, then rest assured, the next stage is ready. In the summer of 2014 without too much mention of SS2, Northrop Grumman announced its plans to develop the XS-1 for DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, together with Scaled Composites and yes, Virgin Galactic!

XS-1 concept – Northrop Grumman

So although this craft is not for manned flight, here Virgin’s payload to LEO dream is alive. Then there is the other build at Scaled, for Stratolaunch.

Stratolaunch Systems say it is in for the long haul, developing innovative space technologies slowly and carefully, and it doesn't dismiss eventually addressing human space flight – which implies that either suborbital flights are not for now, as inferred by Branson’s SS2, or that this company is looking to develop technologies for going much further than Branson’s suborbital aspirations. [emphasis added]

Thus far, Virgin Galactic is not involved with Stratolaunch, except perhaps in the small, but important matter of airports. During the build of Spaceport America the runway originally designed at 10,000ft was extended to 12,000ft. Costing $37million, it is just the right size to take the Stratolaunch System, when Scaled Composites have built it.

Simply read

And if Stratolaunch is thinking bigger, then note that even before SS2 was in the works Burt Rutan had already talked of a plan for getting to Mars before any government could do so.

Atlantis at KSC
Atlantis at KSC

All of which might explain the presence of ex-NASA administrator Michael Griffin on the board. Griffin’s big passion is in the development of human space flight and specifically going to Mars. In 2007, during his time at NASA, Michael Griffin said that NASA aimed to put a man on Mars by 20376. An ambition that neatly fits with Orbital’s Wallop Island launch base acronym MARS. Note that in order to achieve this acronym it has been necessary to make ‘Spaceport’ into one word, rather than the Mojave version, which is two words. For the really ‘out there’ translation, this Mid –Atlantic Regional Spaceport title also evokes notions of Atlantis.

What with naming the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the various other semi-opaque references to mythological themes redolent throughout the space industry – rather than the usual ‘Caycean et al’ connotations of a sunken continent mid-Atlantic here on Earth, could it be that NASA is here seeking to invoke an association between a lost civilisation and the red planet?

Rotan's House
Rotan’s pyramid house – Popular Mechanics 1989

Straying into the realm of mythos, noting that Rutan built himself a pyramid house near Scaled’s headquarters, that the triangular Stratolaunch logo mimics Rutan’s pyramid house, and that the pyramidal forms found out at Elysium and Cydonia on Mars are still a subject of inquiry, then Griffin’s presence on the board takes on even more relevance.

However, before we get to Mars, there are many medical issues with sending human beings into space that are not helped at all by these 'blood and thunder' methods, should they even survive lift off using risky rocket fuels.


Current research into space medicine and even space itself is revealing that we cannot thrive in the conditions created by rocket travel. And the authorities were well aware of many of the medical issues involved in sending manned missions into space using rocket technology back in the 1960s. In an interview with Michael Crichton (published in 1988/89) an authority from NASA spoke of the (then known) medical problems inherent in getting human beings into space.

imageThe Crichton family have published the complete article on their website and also state that it was first published in in Popular Science magazine in 1988 on the eve of the Shuttle’s return to flight, and titled America Beyond (After the Challenger Disaster). Space Shuttle Endeavour flew in September 1988 – but this article doesn't appear to feature for any month of 1988.

Whether it was actually published or whether it was completely censored when Popular Science magazine was uploaded onto the web by Google Books (Google is very involved in space matters) is unclear. What is certain is that when this very same article was published again in the US magazine Popular Mechanics, May 11 1989 under the title 'Spaceport America', (yes, Sir Richard) – all of these sections were missing.

The art of being economical with the truth

One could conclude that in 1989 it was deemed necessary to hide certain facts regarding manned spaceflight from the general public. Facts such as: ‘long term effects of weightlessness' include bone decalcification, muscle atrophy, neuromuscular incoordination’. This is not an accurate statement. Bone decalcification was first identified during the 1960s Gemini missions, and the maximum length of Gemini mission was 14 days. So calcium loss shows up rather sooner than inferred even to this day!

And here’s another ‘fact’: ‘some Russian cosmonauts living in orbit for longer than 8 months have had to be carried from the spacecraft upon returning to Earth gravity’. This is also an inaccurate statement. In 2006 Anousheh Ansari (of that Ansari XPrize, yes!) spent 3 days in space transit and 8 days orbiting Earth in the ISS, and on return to Earth she could neither walk nor govern her movements effectively. An educational and full account of her incapacities upon returning from the ISS to a 1G environment can be found in her blog, all of which is well worth reading, if you want to get the feel of space travel.

“Now I knew why they [the Russians] call it a Second Birth… First you are pulled out of a capsule just like you are pulled out of your mother’s womb, you are then cleaned and need to be taught how to walk again… I don’t remember my birth, but it must have felt just as strange…”

True or False?

Astronauts carried following space flightMay 14 2014 Russia’s Tyurin, America’s Mastrocchio of Expedition 38/39 carried from Soyuz after 188 days in space – compare picture below

Indeed we have all seen the ISS astronauts being hauled out of the return capsules and placed on chairs. Not all of them have been in space for over 8 months, yet we the public believe what we are told by the space agencies and they it seems, are inclined to make extremely misleading statements. Perhaps it is because, as was admitted in 1989, they have no solution to the problems raised by human spaceflight. It did occur to me that for these facts to have been censored from Popular Mechanics in 1989 possibly implied sensitivity at some official level, to what had supposedly been achieved in earlier missions such as Gemini and Apollo.

Apollo astronauts walking unaided following space flight
Apollo 11 astronauts walking totally unaided following space flight

If the physical effects of orbit and spaceflight are truly down to microgravity, one may ask why the Apollo astronauts weren’t affected in the same way as the ISS astronauts. Apollo Missions 7-17 were in space for a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 12 days, yet none of the Apollo crews were incapacitated. How for example, were the Apollo 11 astronauts able to walk out of their capsule unaided, skirt nimbly around the edge of its float system, climb into the rubber dinghy and then, after transferring to a helicopter, stride across the decks of the Hornet, in quite such a sprightly way?


Branson’s Spaceport America designed by Norman Foster looks remarkably like a UFO when seen from above – which night be a nod to its neighbourhood, since it is situated some 33 miles by road from Truth or Consequences and some 143 miles south west of Roswell, so why is Branson (and everyone else) building rocket ships just to provide suborbital flights and satellite payload deliveries to LEO at minimum cost? Is it to maintain the myth of spaceflight ‘as we have already done it’. Or is it because without rethinking the technology for manned space travel completely – we can’t in any case go further than LEO. And rethinking is difficult.

Spaceport America designed by Foster + Partners – Galactic Imagery

Truth AND Consequences

These two rocket accidents for Orbital and Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic occur at a time when NASA itself is attempting to build the biggest rocket ever, in order to travel to the Moon and to Mars. Surely these events only serve to highlight how not to do space travel, rather than demonstrating the best way to do it. Crichton’s NASA contacts told him way back in 1988 that: “Nearly everyone assumes that astronauts will, in the end, require some degree of artificial gravity”.

He added that they did not know how to do it, or how much gravity to use, but they did know it would be very, very expensive to create gravity systems to sustain astronauts in space.

Surely it is better to invest in gravity generation research and work on the science towards achieving that end, rather than illogically continuing with equally expensive technologies which are not fit for purpose for journeys anywhere much beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

It would appear that a ‘cone of silence’ sill exists, and that information is still manipulated and/or censored as we continue to play with rockets, unable to rethink our way into space, for the fear of destroying all space history that has gone before. Why can’t we draw a line in the sand, recognise that the way things were done yesterday is not how we must do them today?

If …

  • If Mars has been designated by NASA as THE emotive target, designed to keep the space program alive in the minds of the public;
  • If we don’t have the courage to go for a complete rethink, work out how to keep human beings alive and invest in the means to do so (which might just be too politically challenging);
  • If the current experimental flights run by the tenants of Virgin Galactic ‘s spaceport cease;
  • And if SS2 doesn’t work out as expected, then…

Given …

  • That Branson named the crashed SS2 the Virgin SpaceShip ‘Enterprise’, VSSE, after the Star Trek TV series – hinting at great travels across the galaxy from planet to planet;
  • Given the difficulties that private companies are having even getting to suborbital;
  • Given the difficulties in maintaining human bio-organisms off the planet at any distance;
  • And given the risks incurred in shuttling to LEO with the present technology, then any boasts of imminent interplanetary human spaceflight must be extremely wide of the mark. Neither NASA, nor its pals in the private sector (including Stratolaunch Systems and Virgin Galactic) are going to be able to make safe and time-effective interplanetary human spaceflight happen with conventionally powered rocket technology – hybrid or otherwise.
Spaceport America
Spaceport America relative to military sites

The Chance – To Dream

…Then Spaceport America might just match its Truth or Consequences neighbour (named after a game show) and become a 21st century theme park. Then this dramatic Norman Foster design might well support one of Rutan’s earlier thoughts on manned space travel for all.

Spaceport America
Spaceport America – Chris Chrisman

Talking to journalist Deborah Hastings, Rutan imagined that space tourists might pay to visit:

"A kind of astronauts' training school, if you will, in some place like Cancun [think New Mexico]. It would be like a regular two-week vacation with great food and things to do at night. It's kind of like a ride at Magic Mountain... It isn't just a roller coaster ride. You are officially added to the list of astronauts.”

Or, as Desert Exposure has it, “If you hurry, you might be able to get the Mars T-shirt concession at Spaceport America”.

Or, Wake Up!

Surely the time has come when we should seriously consider this very public accident to Virgin Galactic’s SS2 as a wake up call; stop pretending that a space plane is a real ‘space ship’; stop pretending that we know how to undertake human space travel, and start learning to build the pro-gravity machines that almost everyone says are going to be needed some day.

Assuming that curiosity still fires the human spirit – as the Mars Rovers would indicate, and that we really do want to send human beings through and beyond the Van Allen belts, to put our feet where our probes have been on the surface of the Red planet, why don’t we get started on these new technologies NOW?

Mary Bennett

Aulis Online, January 2015

next page Update August 2015
– Final NTSB report, associated articles and commentary


1. The Kármán line at 62.137119 miles above Earth (100KM) is the official start of space, However, the USAF & NASA conferred astronaut status on their X-15 pilots as their flights were essentially piercing space at 50 miles up.

2. Although technically ‘privately owned’ many of these companies are sustained by contracts for government projects run through NASA or DARPA and the like.

3. Rutan’s founded Scaled Composites in 1982, At the same year that Beech Aircraft Corp. (then owned by Raytheon) contracted for the Beechcraft Starship, this was built by 1985, whereupon Raytheon purchased the Scaled. Then sold it back to Rutan in 1988. He then sold it to Wyman-Gordon but when this firm was in turn 1999/2000 swallowed up by Precision Castparts, Rutan with nine other investors including Northrop Grumman with 40% of the stake, bought Scaled back. Northrop Grumman intended to acquire the company completely by July 20 2007. The accident of July 26 did not affect this deal and Northrop Grumman fully acquired Scaled on August 24 2007.

4. "Beam us up Beardie" from Private Eye issue No.1374 September 5 2014

5. Sierra Nevada Corporation has contracts with private space companies, the US Dept. of Defense and NASA – its HQ is in the aptly named Sparks, Nevada.

6. In an iterview with The Guardian 2008 Griffin stated that an opportunity to push on to Mars by extending the Apollo program was squandered by a change in focus to Shuttle and space station programs that only reached orbit: "I spent some time analysing what we could have done had we used the budgets we received to explore the capabilities inherent in the Apollo hardware after it was built. The short answer is we would have been on Mars 15 or 20 years ago, instead of circling endlessly in low-Earth orbit."

*On 24 December 2014 XCOR announced that in 2016 it would be flying a single passenger into suborbital flight for around $95,000. The side cut of the XCOR reveals the same ratio of fuselage to fuel as the SS1.

Timeline of events

May 1999 Branson announces registration of Virgin Galactic Airways to ferry guests into orbit. Also plans a hotel in space. Expects to have a reusable rocket system developed by 2004.

September 2004 Branson signs with Scaled Composites to build rocket planes modelled on SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites form The Spaceship Company. Construction starting in 2005 and first flights offered by 2007.

October 2004 Despite signing up high profile ‘founder’ and ‘future’ astronauts, at some $200,000 a seat, Branson says the first flight will be reserved for him and his family. “My dad has put his hand up and will be 90 at the time.” Edward Branson will be 90 on March 10 2008.

April 2007 Branson says SS2 will be unveiled to the public early in 2008, after a year of flight tests there will be a maiden commercial launch in 2009.

July 26 2007 First major accident at Mojave test centre. Three die, three seriously injured.

February 2008 Interviewed on US TV Branson now says that Virgin Galactic won’t be ready before 2010. Six months later he says mid 2010.

December 2009 At an invitation to visit the SS2 at the Mojave base, 300 fully paid up ‘astronauts’ are told regular flights will begin in 2011.

April 2011 Branson uses the reopening of Virgin America terminal in San Francisco to advertise Virgin Galactic, with the landing of White Knight 2. But pushes the date of actually going into space with WK2/SS2 to October 2012 – another18 months.

April 2013 Branson says his 2012 estimate was optimistic – hopes to fly in SS2 by December 2013. In Adelaide, Australia a month later, he states that Virgin Galactic will achieve its commercial passenger aims ‘very soon’.

January 2014 George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO, (responding to author of Behind the Mask Tom Bower’s claim that SS2’s rockets are not powerful enough to achieve suborbital flight, and that it has no licence to fly its passengers) says the company expects to receive its licence ‘in plenty of time for commercial service later in 2014’

February 2014 Virgin Galactic has investment from Al AABAR. Interviewed by Dubai’s Al Arabiya TV, Branson again jokes about the problems of rocket science. He expects SS2 to be going into space by May or June – “If myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year I’d be very, very, very worried.”

March 2014 Branson appears on British ITV's Jonathan Ross Show “If we can get enough people wanting to fly, we can start building Virgin hotels in space, we can start doing trips to Mars, we can colonise Mars, we can start pulling asteroids back to Earth to see what minerals they have got in them.”

April 2014 Virgin Galactic’s VP Will Pomeranz suggests the first commercial flights will not take paying passengers but “will be for NASA flying ‘engineering and technology demonstration payloads.” [via the Flight Opportunities Program].

May 2014 The Sunday Times publishes "Buzz Branson Stuck on Launchpad Again" revealing customer contract issued by Virgin Galactic now has the SS2’s ‘astronaut status altitude’ guaranteed to only 50miles /80.46km/246,000ft up. Nearly 30km lower than advertised originally. Branson is still insistent that he will fly by the end of the year, George Whitesides is more cautious “We are doing it right and we are taking our time. We’re late, there is no question”.

July 2014 Whitesides writes a piece [an op-ed] for The Daily Telegraph, no specific mention of a flight schedule for SS2 . He says that “Space travel is inherently difficult — after all, there is a reason we have all adopted clichéd expressions about rocket science — but there is no reason why it needs to remain so expensive or so infrequent.”

September 5 2014 Private Eye publishes "Beam us up Beardie", its witty and accurate assessment of Virgin Galactic’s progress.

September 9 2014 Branson does CBS’ The Late Show and NBC’s Today Show, stating that he'll be on the first commercial SS2 flight from Spaceport America in February or March 2015.

September 11 2014 On the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Jim Tighe resigns.

September 23 2014 Doug Messier publishes a report on the use of US TV shows to make yet another delay announcement; the comments of the New Mexico citizens affected by Virgin Galactic’s delays; the concern that the engineers back at the Mojave base are under ever increasing pressure to ‘perform’; and the discrepancies between the actual height that SS2 can achieve, the expectations of their customers and the limited altitude of 50 miles now set out in the customer contract seen by The Times of London – yet apparently contradicted in an interview with The Times by Sir Richard.

October 31 2014 Virgin Galactic’s second major accident occurs on Halloween the Hallow’s Eve of All Saint’s day on November 1st, or as it is known in Mexico and New Mexico - the Dia de los Muertos.

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