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After exploring the cause of the crash for one week, safety experts suggested today that the Virgin Galactic test flight experienced structural failure, but this is not stopping the company from promoting its suborbital spaceflight. Investigation is ongoing for why the flight failed.
This is a change because previous discussion had centered on an engine explosion as cause for the experimental rocket ship’s destruction. One of the pilots died when the flight crashed in the Mojave Desert last week after breaking up inflight. The other pilot is in critical condition.
The new assessment of the cause is based on video footage released and on data analysis from examination of the aerodynamic forces. Considerations include engine malfunction, which is a departure from the previous belief that the engine had exploded. The National Transportation Safety Board stated that, as the investigation is in the early stages, new information could change its direction.
A possible structural failure could be costly for Virgin Galactic. Such a finding would result in Research and Development costs to redesign major portions of the rocket ship. Requirements for design changes could mean that both size and capacity would have to be revisited.
The answers to investigators’ questions are not likely to be found soon. The determination as to whether the Virgin Galactic had structural failure could take a year, but the company continues to promote suborbital spaceflight.
Despite the negative publicity regarding the fatal flight, the company will continue to pursue space tourism options. Virgin Galactic’s website urges viewers to register for a drawing to go on a suborbital spaceflight with the rocket ship.
The online advertisement continues with encouragement of becoming a member of “a new generation of private astronaut.” It emphasizes the thrill of surpassing the speed of sound by over three times and viewing “our beautiful planet” at over 360,000 feet, in outer space.
The ad includes a contest for a prize draw for those with 2 million Flying Club miles. That group can now use them to participate in the possibility of winning a trip with Virgin Galactic.
Meanwhile, the investigation could take up to a year to interpret the data found onsite over the next week. Test flights as a matter of course include additional data. Some of the data will come from the design company, Scaled Composites, as well as from Virgin Galactic.
One of the mysteries of this case is that the cause of the crash is unknown to the designers themselves. An expert in rocket propulsion, Carolynne Campbell-Knight of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), said that she had communicated with Virgin Galactic four years ago. The question then was regarding the use of nitrous oxide in the rockets.
The company CEO George Whitesides announced that during the test flight a new fuel formation was used. However, he expressed that it had been tested and proven multiple times while the rocket ship was on the ground.
Despite the recent investigation for structural failure, Virgin Galactic continues to promote suborbital spaceflight. Their website ad has not been taken down in light of the recent fatality. In fact, viewers are asked to “rate this page” and connect with the company on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
By Fern Remedi-Brown