FAA Defers to State Authority in Mojave Mishap Inquiry

WASHINGTON? The July 26 test stand accident that killed three Scaled Composites employeeson a propulsion system for Virgin Galactic?s SpaceShipTwo is expected to be nomore than a temporary setback for the emerging personal space flight industry.

The FederalAviation Administration (FAA) office in charge of licensing private spaceflight operators, including New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic, is treating the test standmishap as an industrial accident, leaving the ongoing investigation toScaled Composites and California?s workplace safety authorities. Patricia GraceSmith, the FAA?s associate administrator for commercial space transportationtold Space News July 31 in a statement that the director of the MojaveAir and Spaceport where the incident occurred and the California [OccupationalSafety and Health Administration] officials called in to investigate ?indicatethis was an industrial accident, a fuel-flow test gone terribly wrong.? Theincident did not involve any activities regulated by the FAA, according toSmith.

?It was nota launch accident. It was not a flight accident. It was not directly related tovehicle performance or passenger involvement,? she said.

The FAA isexpected to closely follow the accident investigations being conducted byCalifornia OSHA and Scaled Composites. Sources familiar with the FAA?sprocesses said the regulatory agency likely would factor the investigationfindings into future license or permit applications relating to SpaceShipTwo,which is being built to carrysix paying passengers into suborbital space.

?The FAAdoes take accidents during development into consideration when it conducts itsmaximum probable loss analysis,? said a lawyer who follows commercial spacetransportation law. ?So this will come back to some degree to Scaled Compositeswhen they decide to go out and actually get a license.? For now, Smith?smessage was one of support, both for the Scaled Composites and the pursuit ofpersonal spaceflight.

?First andforemost the Mojave accident was a crushing day for the families of those lostand injured. It was a painful and unforgettable day for Scaled Composites,?Smith said in her statement before concluding, ?The dream of private humanspaceflight is in motion and I expect it to keep moving forward.?

ScaledComposites officials, in keeping with their general secrecy about most mattersinvolving SpaceshipTwo, have provided little detail about what hardware was onthe test stand when the accident involving a cold-flow test went wrong, killingTodd Ivens, 33, Eric Blackwell, 38, and Glen May, 45 and seriously injuringthree of their co-workers.

During aJuly 27 press conference at Mojave airport, Scaled Composites Chief ExecutiveBurt Rutan told reporters, ?We were doing a test we believe was safe. We don?tknow why it exploded. We just don?t know.?

Severalindustry sources said the test activity taking place July 26 involved acomposite tank designed for SpaceShipTwo. Like the reusable SpaceShipOne, whichflew twice in two weeks to win the $10million Ansari X Prize in 2004, SpaceShipTwo is being designed to rely on ahybrid rocket engine that uses nitrous oxide as an oxidizer and a rubber-basedfuel.

Doug Shane,Scaled Composites vice president for business development and director offlight operations, would not say whether the nitrous oxide tank destroyed inthe accident was flight hardware.

?The caseremains under investigation and we are following the lead of stateinvestigators,? he wrote Aug. 1 in an e-mail. ?Our focus this week has been onthe families and friends as we continue to mourn this tragic event. We hope tolearn all of the answers that can avert the potential of something like thishappening in the future.?

An industryofficial who asked not to be identified since the investigation was still underway predicted that the accident likely would ?slow Virgin Galactic down a bit?but that they would ?remain undeterred from entering commercial service.?

Prior tothe accident, Virgin Galactic said it expected SpaceShipTwo to begin service no soonerthan late 2009.

GeorgeWhitesides, Virgin Galactic?s senior advisor in Washington, declined to commenton the accident?s impact on the company?sbusiness plans.

Theaccident so far has elicited no public comment from Congress, which passedlegislation in 2004 setting the framework for regulating personal spaceflight.But congressional staffers are asking questions.

Stu Witt,the director of the Mojave Air and Spaceport, was in Washington the week ofJuly 30 on what he said was a long-planned quarterly visit to meet withofficials at the FAA and Congress. He told Space News the accident wasdiscussed during his meetings, but would not go into detail.

?The factthat we had a mishap last week added a little more substance at times to thevisit,? Witt said Aug. 2 in a brief interview.

Washingtonsources said Smith, too, was on Capitol Hill the week of July 30, stopping bythe House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for a meeting requestedby staff there to discuss the accident.

Smith?soffice would not comment on the meeting.

Jim Muncy,a former congressional staffer and Alexandria, Va.-based consultant who workson personal space flight policy issues, said congressional attention should beexpected but that he does not foresee Scaled Composites? accident creatingpolitical fallout for the industry.

?Everyonewants this industry to succeed. Everyone knows this is our first trial,? Muncysaid. ?Members of Congress and their staffs are going to ask questions to makesure that we learn from it. But the law and the regulatory regime are in placeto ensure public safety and to enable the industry to learn and grow andsucceed.?

A weekafter the accident, two of the three Scaled Composites employees seriouslyinjured in the blast ? Keith Fritsinger and Gene Gisin ? remained in criticalcondition but were making progress in their recovery, according to an updateposted on Scaled Composites? Web site. Jason Kramb, meanwhile, was upgradedfrom serious condition and moved to a burn unit in Southern California tocontinue his recovery.

ScaledComposites also announced the formation of a support fund to aid the victimsand families of those affected by the accident.

?This is anincredibly hard time for all of us,? Scaled officials said in a statement. ?Wecontinue to ask you to keep those people and families who were hurt or havedied in your thoughts and prayers.? The fund can be reached through ScaledComposites? Web site or by contacting the Scaled Family Support Fund c/o ScaledComposites, 1624 Flight Line, Mojave, Calif. 93501.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.