A very sad day for Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites.
It’s also a sad day for the nascent industry as a whole. After last week’s Orbital Sciences explosion shortly after launch, this second commercial space flight accident will bring closer scrutiny to what is essentially a high risk business.
The test pilots at Virgin (and no doubt XCOR) know these risks and furthermore know the safety risks are higher during flight tests; hence they wear additional safety equipment such as parachutes – when the vehicle is clearly not designed for emergency egress in flight (certainly not for the SFPs).
The IAASS suborbital safety guidance manual was updated last month to include survival systems and survival equipment guidance. We (the international based association with S-3, Airbus and Rocketplane to name a few) believe that a vehicle or personal survival system is essential for suborbital human space flight for emergency situations. Virgin Galactic has lost a pilot sadly and one pilot survived due to wearing a parachute. As the risk is high especially for the early flights the cost benefit analysis would demand such systems. The point of experimental test flights and ground testing is to iron-out reliability and safety issues – even if it means re-design of certain systems; or even changes to the vehicle itself.
Additionally the IAASS Suborbital Safety Guidance Manual has a section on propulsion safety written by our own expert used to designing and handling N2O.
Previously COMSTAC gave our guidance manual the cold shoulder; however at last month’s conference it was pleasing that the FAA-AST were willing to review the guidance and interested in our views. I have also reviewed the latest FAA-AST recommended practices and they have improved on the initial draft and now include recommendations on emergency survival systems.
So going forward let us hope that industry takes heed of both American Authority and International based guidance. As the Spaceship Two explosion / breakup shows, Spaceflight is a very risky business where safety should be embedded from the beginning – meaning formal safety management and systems safety engineering.