Posted by DrJohn on 2 November, 2014 at 7:01 am. 12 comments already!


spaceship two crash

Virgin Galactic joins the club.

The United States has suffered the loss of two orbiters and crews- Challenger and Columbia. Both were most likely avoidable.

The Challenger was lost in 1987 when politics overruled safety and it launched in weather far too cold, which impaired the ability of the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters to function as designed.

The arguments made by managers over the voices of the engineers was appalling:

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn’t hide his disdain. “My God, Thiokol,” he said. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”


In 2003 the orbiter Columbia broke up upon re-rentry consequent to a hole in the leading edge of a wing. The orbiter fought bravely to maintain course right up to the instant of disintegration.

The hole had been caused by a piece of foam insulation flying off of the attached liquid fuel tank. Engineers sought a satellite examination of the wings of the orbiter but NASA refused.


This week Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two exploded shortly after release from White Knight Two. One pilot was killed. What caught my eye was this key sentence:

SpaceShipTwo was testing a new plastic-based rocket fuel for the first time Friday.

People were launched on a flight with a new fuel being used for the first time.


Human-rating certification

Human-rated or man-rated are terms used to describe the certification of a spacecraft, launch vehicle or airplane[not verified in body] as worthy of transporting humans. NASA and the U.S. GAO now use “Human-rating” when describing requirements for these systems. The terms “man-rated” and “human-rated” are mostly used interchangeably.

In spaceflight, a human-rating certification is the assurance that the space system accommodates human needs, effectively utilizes human capabilities, controls hazards with sufficient certainty to be considered safe for human operations, and provides, to the maximum extent practical, the capability to safely recover the crew from hazardous situations.[1] In the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has published NASA Procedural Requirement NPR 8705.2B – Human Rating Requirements for Space Systems, defining the certification process and a set of technical requirements to be applied to its crewed space systems in addition to the standards and requirements that are mandatory for all of NASA’s space flight programs.[1]

You just don’t send people to fly on vehicles with fuels that are not man-rated. You don’t send men on a flight with a new fuel that had not been previously tested. It’s reckless. Problem is, it’s not the first time Virgin has gambled:

It was not the first time Virgin pushed limits to get into space. A new biography about SpaceShipTwo’s patron, Richard Branson, by investigative journalist Tom Bower makes that clear. Rocket engineers Geoff Daly and Caroline Campbell were critical of one of the components of the original rubber-based fuel: nitrous oxide. Campbell warned: “Nitrous oxide can explode on its own.” Another toxic component of the fuel was hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, a form of rubber. Campbell said that when the engine ran there was “so much soot coming out the back, burning rubber, that it could be carcinogenic.”

In 2007, the unattached rocket engine using that fuel was being tested on the ground in the Mojave desert when it exploded and killed three of 40 engineers observing the test. Investigators found that safety regulations at the site had been violated and that the men killed had been too close to the rocket motor.

Ginned up by celebrity enthusiasm, the public had once again lost sight of the stark reality- this is dangerous business and hubris can kill you in an instant.

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