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'Spaceline' test flight goes wrong; can NTSB make it right?

In the days since the failed test flight of SpaceShipTwo, the 24-hour news cycle has spawned many predictable and unanswerable questions to experts, pundits and Virgin Galactic LLC founder Richard Branson. The most common has been, "What happened?"

To date, no one has responded with an impatient, "What do you mean 'what happened?' It blew up." Instead, we have heard over and over that the investigation is just beginning, and that it could take as long as a year for the National Transportation Safety Board to release its final report. There are occasional bits of information about possible causes of the explosion, in part, perhaps, because there was a survivor.

We have talked about the NTSB's inability to mount comprehensive "full-court press" investigations of small and private plane accidents. While SpaceShipTwo was designed to carry six passengers into space -- and it was certainly a private aircraft -- the high profile of the project has convinced the NTSB to send a team of 13 to 15 investigators, by CNN's count, to the crash site.

Investigators have a good deal of physical evidence to work from. The spacecraft came apart but did not disintegrate -- the reason one of the two pilots was able to get out -- over a five-mile area. And, an NTSB representative said, because it was a test flight, there is a good deal of data available about the spacecraft's systems before and during the 15-second flight.

So far, that data shows that the re-entry system deployed early, perhaps at the command of the co-pilot. While the co-pilot initiated the process too soon, neither pilot took the second step by pulling another lever; the system apparently deployed itself. Without pointing the finger at pilot error, investigators have formed a team specifically devoted to the spacecraft's crew interface.

In the meantime, Branson has committed Virgin Galactic to completing the second spaceship and to continuing the company's efforts to fly civilians into space. It is not clear if the construction for the second SpaceShipTwo will at least pause until the NTSB has completed its investigation.

Sources:

The Christian Science Monitor, "Did human factors contribute to the SpaceShipTwo tragedy?" Pete Spotts, Nov. 4, 2014

CNN, "SpaceShipTwo helmed by experienced pilots when flight failed," Ralph Ellis, Chelsea J. Carter and Jason Hanna, Nov. 3, 2014

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