Based on the scattered and deformed remnants of the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and the postponed funeral of one of the pilots, it would have been easy to assume that a design flaw could be a fatal mistake in an accident.
But all the evidence gathered shows that the Virgin Galactic suborbital apparatus worked perfectly at the beginning of its fourth test flight.
Recall that the flight, launched from the aviation and space port of Mojave in California on October 31, ended tragically. The pilot's assistant was killed, the pilot himself was seriously wounded, and the spacecraft was destroyed.
Initial analysis eliminated engine problems. Instead, the video data broadcast during the flight quickly led the researchers to the conclusion that for some unknown reason, the pilot Michael Alsbury, whose body was found in the wreckage, switched a lever that opens access to the rotatable tail of a space plane before aerodynamic forces could hold the apparatus.
SpaceShipTwo is a simple aircraft, with several automated systems and without hydraulics. The developer and manufacturer, Scaled Composites, modeled a six-seater, piloted by two pilots, based on its SpaceShipOne prototype, which won the Ansari X Prize Grand Prix at $ 10 million in 2004.
Such simplicity gives SpaceShipTwo flexibility, the ability to fly in a wide variety of modes, from subsonic and supersonic planning to jet acceleration beyond the atmosphere. However, each condition of the aircraft is due to a change in the configuration of the tail of SpaceShipTwo, called a feather.
“The pen is ultimately necessary for returning to Earth (to the atmosphere) to create an air brake,” says Mike Moses, vice president of operations for Virgin Galactic.
The patented system increases the atmospheric resistance on the spacecraft during its return to the atmosphere, resembling a shuttlecock in badminton.
During the two previous test flights, SpaceShipTwo pilots tested the pen system in supersonic conditions. It was one of the systems that was to be tested during the flight on October 31.
In order to prevent premature movement of the pen, SpaceShipTwo has a structural lock that holds the pen in place.
If the blocking of the pen was removed before the ship reached a speed of 1, 4 Mach, then the plane did not have enough strength to hold on. It seems that it is this scenario that decided the fate of SpaceShipTwo.
Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, sitting in the cab's right seat, opened the pen when the vehicle reached a speed of 1 Mach. After 2 seconds, the tail began to shift. SpaceShipTwo fell apart. No signs of an explosion were observed.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, is expected to publish its preliminary report this week.