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Speeches

Board Meeting: Commercial Space Launch Accident - SpaceShipTwo, Opening Statement, Washington, DC
Christopher A. Hart
NTSB Conference Center, Washington, DC
7/28/2015

Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Christopher Hart, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr, Member Robert Sumwalt and Member Earl Weener.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider a report on the in-flight breakup of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo during a test-flight near Koehn Dry Lake, California, on October 31, 2014. While the public is invited to observe the meeting – here in this room or via webcast - only the Board Members and NTSB staff will participate in today's discussions.

Tragically the co-pilot died and the pilot suffered serious injuries as a result of the breakup. On behalf of my fellow Board Members and the entire NTSB staff, I would like to extend our sincere condolences to the family of the co-pilot. I would also like to extend our wishes to the pilot and his family for a full recovery.

We cannot undo what happened, but it is our hope that through this investigation we will find ways to prevent such an accident from happening again, thereby helping to improve the safety of manned commercial space flight.

These two test pilots took on an uncommon challenge: testing technologies for manned commercial space flight, which is still in its infancy. Human space flight is subject to unique hazards, and test-pilots work in an environment in which unknown hazards might emerge.

In an environment in which it is common to encounter unknown hazards, it is of utmost importance to incorporate as much as possible of what is known: the lessons that have already been learned from other, more developed modes of transportation.

The accident that we consider today involved SpaceShipTwo, a manned, rocket-powered, suborbital vehicle that Scaled Composites developed for Virgin Galactic.

Our investigation was greatly aided by the abundance of data available, including cockpit video telemetry. As our investigators will explain, in addition to incorporating information provided by the pilot, we were able to see the actions of flight crew members, and learn with a high degree of certainty the events that resulted in the breakup.

What we saw led us to explore the extent to which Scaled Composites considered human factors in this launch. This morning, we will hear from staff about the pilot training and procedures that were in place. We will also hear how human factors were considered in the design and manufacture of SpaceShipTwo.

The test flight was subject to oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA’s oversight role in commercial space is different from its oversight role in aviation. For commercial space, the FAA does not certify the vehicle.  It only certifies the launch, focusing mainly on public safety. 

Nonetheless, many of the safety issues that we will hear about today arose not from the novelty of a space launch test-flight, but from human factors that were already known elsewhere in transportation.

And although commercial space transportation is in a period of great innovation, the FAA does have a process for addressing human factors for experimental launches. We will ask today whether the FAA’s procedures and oversight were effective, and whether they can be improved upon.

We will examine the process by which the FAA issued, and subsequently renewed, a launch permit to Scaled Composites, and the process by which the FAA granted waivers from human factors and software hazard analysis requirements in the renewal process.

We will also inquire whether there could have been more extensive communication between Scaled Composite and the FAA regarding these issues.

The NTSB is not a regulator, and we have no power to require changes. We identify the causes of accidents in all modes of transportation and make safety recommendations which, if acted upon, can help prevent recurrences. However, more than 80% of our recommendations are acted upon favorably, contributing to a high standard of transportation safety today, and pointing toward even safer transportation tomorrow.

It is our objective in this meeting to identify actions that the FAA and the industry can take to collaboratively improve the safety of commercial space transportation in the future.

Now Managing Director Tom Zoeller will introduce the staff.

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