Virgin Galactic engineers are busy putting together a new spaceship that will replace the company’s rocket-powered plane that broke apart over Mojave, California, last Friday during a test flight that killed one pilot and left another seriously injured.
Even while the cause of the disaster is still being investigated, Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin Group, and manufacturer Scaled Composites hope to complete the construction of the second SpaceShipTwo by the middle of next year, Reuters reported.
The original spaceship, built to take paying passengers on short rides into suborbital space, had been on schedule to make its first flight by the end of the year, a key milestone for the planned start of commercial passenger service in 2015.
National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency looking into the accident, is focusing on why co-pilot Mike Alsbury, who died in the crash, unlocked the ship’s movable tail section when it should have remained engaged until the craft reached supersonic speed, the news agency said.
About two seconds after the tail was unlocked, it began to swivel outward, likely triggering the vehicle’s supersonic breakup and Alsbury’s death.
The tail system has been designed with an unlocking mechanism as part of the ship’s safety features.
“It’s a great safety feature, but if you use your safety feature in a regime that it’s not designed to handle, bad things are going to happen,” Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic vice president of operations, told Reuters. “It’s like your car airbag going off at 65 miles per hour.”
The surviving pilot, Pete Siebold, 43, and Alsbury, 39, had planned to test the tail system as part of SpaceShipTwo’s fourth rocket-powered test flight, the first since Virgin Galactic decided to use a new fuel to boost the space plane to higher altitudes.
The official name of the second SpaceShipTwo is 202VG. Informally, though, employees have taken to calling the new ship “Hope”.
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