Investigation continues into Virgin Galactic crash as few ticket holders pull out

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Nov 5, 2014, 2:09 PM EST (Updated)

As we continue to mourn the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, the investigation is underway to determine exactly what brought the experimental space plane to the ground — and some ticket holders are beginning to ask for refunds.

The space plane went down last week during a test flight that killed one pilot and left the other severely injured, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has offered an update on what might have caused the plane to break up in the air. According to The Guardian, the NTSB reports that the braking system unlocked early and should not have been unlocked until the plane reached the faster speed of Mach 1.4.

What investigators don’t know is exactly what caused the system to unlock, since a pilot would’ve had to pull a separate lever to make it happen, and the onboard computer shouldn’t have activated it at that lower speed. The team is investigating to determine whether it might have been activated by accident (or for some reason we don't yet understand) by a co-pilot. Another theory is that aerodynamic forces pushed the braking system into position, causing the crash.

Had the plane been traveling higher, and at Mach 1.4, it would have been in thinner air. But when deployed in the lower, thicker air, it likely caused the plane to break up, officials believe. The system is unique because SpaceShipTwo uses a “feathering system” to slow down on its descent to Earth, with braking fins that kick back and increase drag.

While the NTSB team works to piece together exactly what happened, some of Virgin Galactic’s future customers are starting to feel apprehensive about the planned public space flights coming in the next few years. Approximately 3 percent of ticket holders have canceled their flights, 20 of the 700 people on the wait list, in the wake of the crash.

Despite the tragedy, Virgin Galactic says the company is as committed as ever to making space tourism a reality. Here’s an excerpt from the company’s statement in the wake of the crash:

For Virgin Galactic, everything rests on our vision of creating accessible and democratized space that will benefit humanity in countless ways for generations to come. Like early air or sea technologies, the development is not easy and comes with great risks, but our team of more than 400 dedicated engineers and technicians are committed to realizing the potential of this endeavor. From research, to travel, to innovation, we believe that the technology our industry is pioneering is crucial to the advancement of humanity.

(Via The Guardian, Popular Science)