Thursday, July 30, 2015

NTSB Releases Virgin Galactic Findings


November 3, 2014 ... NBC News interviews NTSB officials investigating the SpaceShipTwo crash. Video source: NBC News YouTube channel.

Nearly nine months after the loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo vehicle VSS Enterprise on October 31, the National Transportation Safety Board held a public hearing on July 28 to release its preliminary findings.

Click here for the report synopsis. The final report is in final revisions. The video of the hearing is available on the agency's web site until the end of October; I will try to obtain a video copy to post on YouTube as a permanent archive.



UPDATE August 30, 2015 — The NTSB finally sent me the video of the hearing. Click the above arrow to watch.


Despite public perceptions that Virgin Galactic was responsible for the flight tests, those were performed by the ship's designer, Scaled Composites, which employed the test pilots.

In January, Virgin Galactic announced it would assume control of the testing program from Scaled.

The investigation concluded that Scaled co-pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely released the ship's feather system.

Afterward, the aerodynamic and inertial loads imposed on the feather flap assembly were sufficient to overcome the feather actuators, which were not designed to hold the feather in the retracted position during the transonic region. As a result, the feather extended uncommanded, causing the catastrophic structural failure.

Although the NTSB concluded the probable cause was pilot error, much of the criticism was levelled at the Federal Aviation Administration and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (whose acronym is AST). Inspectors were not familiar with Scaled operations, and waivers were routinely issued without verifying that Scaled was in compliance. The NTSB recommended ten actions — eight for the Federal Aviation Administration, and two for Scaled Composites.

During the hearing, it was noted that one FAA evaluator had claimed that “political pressure” had been responsible for the waivers. Apparently the allegation was made by only one person, and no specifics were provided during the meeting. The implication was that the agency was under pressure to issue permits within the procedural deadline of 120 days.

The Office of Commercial Space Transporation is a popular target for budget cuts by Congress. A May 9, 2014 Space News article warned that the agency was going to be “overwhelmed by a rising tide of nongovernment launches and experimental space activities” thanks to Congress cutting President Obama's funding requests.

Reporter Dan Leone wrote:

Under the Commercial Space Launch Act, which was last amended in 2004, AST must review applications for an experimental permit, such as the one used by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, to test fly Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, within 120 days of receiving them.

The President's Fiscal Year 2016 budget requested a $1.5 million increase from its FY15 budget of $16.6 million, but the House of Representatives has voted to appropriate only a $250,000 increase from FY15.

Founded in 1982 by Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites was acquired in 2007 by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. The corporation employed over 65,000 nationwide in 2014, and in its 2014 report stated an operating income of $3.2 billion on $24 billion in sales. $20 billion of that was in sales to the U.S. government.

Northrop Grumman is designated a “heavy hitter” by OpenSecrets.org. Its political action committee spent $2.3 million in campaign contributions in 2014.

Government agencies typically are regulated by two congressional committees. The authorization committee establishes policy and budget, but the appropriations committee releases the actual dollars to fund operations. The authorization committee, for example, could budget an agency for $100 in a fiscal year, but the appropriations committee could choose to provide only $50. Or it could choose to provide $150, more money than requested.

OpenSecrets.org reports which members of Congress received Northrop's largesse. Members of the FAA's authorization and appropriations subcommittees received campaign contributions from Northrop.

The FAA's House authorization committee is the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee. The House appropriations committee is the Commerce Subcommittee.

On the Aviation authorization subcommittee, chair Frank LoBiando (R-NJ) received $10,000 in 2014 as did ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA). The full committee's chair, Bill Shuster (R-PA), received $10,000. On the Commerce appropriations subcommittee, chair John Culberson (R-TX) received $10,000, while ranking member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) received $7,500. The full committee's chair, Hal Rogers (R-KY), received $10,000.

The FAA's Senate authorization committee is the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee's Aviation Operations Subcommittee. The Senate appropriations committee is the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies subcommittee.

On the Aviation Operations Subcommittee, chair Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) received $5,000. Full committee chair John Thune (R-SD) received $6,000. On the appropriations subcommittee, chair Susan Collins (R-ME) received $5,000 and ranking member Jack Reed (D-RI) received $10,000. Full committee chair Thad Cochran (R-MS) received $10,000.

In the 2014 election cycle, Northrop gave $2 million to House members — $1.1 million to Republicans and $0.9 million to Democrats. In the Senate, where only one-third of the members are up for election each cycle, Northrop gave only $298,000 — $210,000 to Republicans and $88,000 to Democrats.

You can draw your own conclusions why the FAA may have been under political pressure to approve Scaled's permits while the agency lacked resources to do a proper evaluation.

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