The investigation into the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a test flight is focusing on a "feathering" maneuver designed to slow the aircraft down by increasing its drag, the New York Times reports.
At a news conference on Sunday, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Christopher A. Hart described the maneuver, which involved the pilot moving a lever to unlock the tail booms, and then moving a handle to lower the booms, the Times said. According to telemetry data and cockpit video, the pilot moved the lever to unlock the booms while the craft was traveling at around Mach 1, at a lower target speed and altitude than when the booms would normally be unlocked.
“Shortly after the feathering occurred, the telemetry data terminated, and the video data terminated," Mr. Hart told the Times. "The engine burn was normal, up until the extension of the feathers.”
Early analysis had indicated that a structural failure, instead of an engine explosion, may have caused the crash, the Wall Street Journal reports. The debris field and condition of the wreckage suggested that there was no explosion in the propulsion system before the craft began to break apart. If a structural failure is to blame, it could force an expensive redesign of large portions of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic Responds
George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said that the company could have a spacecraft ready to fly by next year in an interview published Sunday, Reuters reports. Whitesides said that a second spacecraft is "getting close to readiness" and that it could be ready once the NTSB investigation reaches its conclusions.
"We really thought by March of next year, we'd be there," Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson told the BBC. "Something went wrong. We need to find out what went wrong and fix it."
Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash. Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted from SpaceShipTwo and survived with serious injuries. Siebold is being treated in Antelope Valley Hospital.
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