© 2023 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Incorrect Command May Have Doomed Virgin Spaceship


New details are emerging on the crash of a commercial space plane on Friday that killed one of its pilots. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel reports on how an incorrect command given by the copilot may have doomed the spaceship in a matter of seconds.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Virgin Galactic's space plane is designed to zip up to the edge of space and then float gently back to earth. The company eventually hopes to coax tourists onto the fight, which offers a few minutes of weightlessness and some great views. But the dreams of space tourism were put on hold Friday. A test vehicle called SpaceShipTwo broke up over the Mojave Desert. The pilot was badly injured, and the copilot died.


CHRISTOPHER HART: We still have months and months of investigation to do - a lot that we don't know.

BRUMFIEL: Christopher Hart is the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Hart does point to something that may be an important clue. Seconds after the space plane's rocket fired, data and video from the cockpit shows the copilot unlocking something called the feather.


HART: Shortly after the feathering occurred, the telemetry data terminated and the video data terminated.

BRUMFIEL: SpaceShipTwo broke apart. The term feather refers to part of the wings and the tail of the plane. On the edge of the atmosphere, where the air is too thin to fly, they flip up to stabilize the spaceship and point its nose gently downward for reentry. Why feather? Well, it's actually a reference to a badminton birdie.

BOB WEISS: If you notice, it's that thing with the feathers that when you hit it, no matter what angle you hit it, it always rights itself.

BRUMFIEL: Bob Weiss is president of the XPrize Foundation. When SpaceShipTwo's wings and tail are up, they do the same thing.

WEISS: So that no matter at what angle it approached the atmosphere, it would right itself.

BRUMFIEL: Ten years ago, an earlier version of this spaceship won a $10 million XPrize, in large part to this discovering feature. It made the risky job of reentry safer and more controlled. But feathering only works outside the atmosphere, says John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of space policy at George Washington University. If the wings and tail flipped up too early...

JOHN LOGSDON: It seems logical to think that the airframe could not handle the unanticipated stress and broke apart.

BRUMFIEL: That may be what happened here. According to the NTSB, the unlocking wasn't supposed to happen when it did. Logsdon says the loss of the spaceplane would likely be a big financial blow to the project.

LOGSDON: As a private venture, you don't know the exact cost figures. But they can't be inexpensive. I mean, these are high-precision space vehicles.

BRUMFIEL: But Virgin Galactic may rise again. It's backed by billionaire Richard Branson. Today, he vowed to move forward and provide spaceflights for the hundreds of people who have already signed up. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.