Sunday, November 2, 2014

Virgin Galactic Head Rejects Risk-Taking Claims

November 2, 2014 6:24 am

Virgin Galactic head rejects risk-taking claims

The head of Virgin Galactic, whose test spacecraft suffered a fatal crash on Friday, has rejected accusations that the group ignored warnings about its novel rocket propulsion system and said that it could have a new spacecraft ready to fly next year.
George Whitesides, who was speaking in an interview in New Mexico late on Saturday, said that periodic claims from others in the space industry that Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company was running high risks marked a difference of professional opinion rather than valid warnings.
“In the space community you will be able to find people who have favourite technologies of different types. One group will say their type of technology is better than another,” he said. “We pay a lot of attention to the several hundred engineers that we have on staff, and other expert consultants we’ve talked with about our technologies.”
However, it also emerged on Saturday evening that the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that broke apart in the sky above the Mojave desert on Friday, killing one pilot and severely injuring the other, was using a new method of propulsion that was more complex than had been widely believed, and which had only been fully tested a handful of times on the ground.
The National Transportation Protection Board, which began an investigation at the site early in the day, said by the evening that it had recovered three different types of fuel tank from wreckage strewn over five and a half miles of desert floor.
The presence of three types of fuel, which were mixed in the vehicle’s engine before being ignited, showed that the propulsion method was much more complex than an earlier one Virgin Galactic abandoned several months ago after years of experimentation, according to two rocket experts, one of whom works for a company using a different type of technology. The switch was made to try to push the spacecraft closer to the 100km altitude that is widely considered to represent the edge of space.
Groups that have warned publicly about Virgin Galactic’s propulsion systems over the years include IAASS, an organisation representing a number of space safety experts. Mr Whitesides said he was not aware of any formal warnings that the organisation had made to the company.
Friday’s flight was the first to use the new fuel system, which the Virgin Galactic chief executive acknowledged had been put through a full test cycle on the ground only a handful of times. However, he said: “We fired the motor many more times than that, but we have put that motor through a rigorous ground development programme. The results of those tests were positive.”
US government investigators said late on Saturday that it was too early to reach any conclusions about the cause of the crash or how long the Virgin Galactic programme would be closed down. A full report could take a year, said Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB.
Even if it ultimately clears Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo of any major flaws, the length of the NTSB investigation looks set to complicate further Sir Richard’s hopes of getting back to development of the project, which is already years behind schedule.
A second spacecraft under construction for the last three years in New Mexico is “65 per cent complete”, Mr Whitesides said, adding that it could be ready to fly next year, once the cause of last week’s accident has been resolved. “The second spaceship is getting close to readiness,” he said.
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Even Branson may fail, a great deal will be learned for future aerospace engineering. These type of work is always highly speculative. For many of who have tried, most would fail. People who are into innovation and research have to accept this risk. You have to give Branson put his own money and has skin in this high risk game - just like how Allen and Gates or two Steves (and their failed and often forgotten counterparts) did more than 30 years ago. I have far more admiration to these folks than private equites who seek to cash out their biotechs and dot coms with rubbish IPOs.
It is a tragedy, but you have to think that these guys are pioneers at the cutting edge.  If space tourism is to become a reality Branson and others will need to keep experimenting.  That said testing on the ground "a handful of times" has either got to be inaccurate or is foolhardy.  It will be interesting to see the results of a full investigation.
Good European
@SamH Words like 'pioneer' have their place in ground breaking business models but are not really suitable for concepts like 'tourism'. As a professional sailor over many years I have taken thousands of paying guests/crew onto the water to experience the thrills and spills of yacht racing, on shore and off shore, in cutting edge high performance boats. It is always done the same way as the people who take clients out in high performance race cars on race tracks. you NEVER expose pay and play consumers to 100% risk scenarios. 90% offers all the adrenalin anybody could possibly want within acceptable margins of risk. Where full exposure is unavoidable (for example round the world pay and play race events) you are obliged to train clients to a professional level themselves before anybody gets anywhere near a start gun and the clients are obliged to commit to that challenge when they sign up. Space tourists aren't even pay and play, they are merely passive passengers. Risk is unacceptable.
All the indications are that this project was ill conceived, over ambitious and has for some time been driven by commercial imperatives (time) over and above safety. Sure, test pilots can expose themselves to such risks and good luck to them. But what's going down in New Mexico right now would appear to be pioneering of the most reckless variety and very much in the cowboy tradition. Space really is no place for cowboys. Especially ones susceptible to denial. In any case if I were to sell people an 'off shore' experience and only take them to the twelve mile limit that defines international waters I'd feel I was cheating them. 100,000 feet is nothing more than a tease.
The excessive optimism which has coloured this and similar efforts has dominated media coverage on space travel,including the death sentence to Mars.Jet aviation in it's early days was accompanied by losses of life as was  propeller flight and the dirigible before it.When did people become so stupid as to not realize that untried and tested =risky?

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