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Probe Reveals Human Error Caused Virgin Galactic Crash

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday concluded its first investigation into a fatal spacecraft accident. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three, two, one, release, release, release.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is more of a space plane, designed to rocket paying customers miles above Earth before gently gliding back down. But seconds after a test flight last October, the spaceship broke apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And now you're looking at bits and pieces of this spaceship. There has been an anomaly...

BRUMFIEL: The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, died. The pilot miraculously survived but was severely injured. The NTSB concluded the co-pilot pulled a lever too early, unlocking the tale of the rocket-propelled plane and causing it to break apart. But investigators also found the pilots were under pressure to carry out commands in a matter of seconds while rocketing into space. You can hear the physical strain they're under in this video of an earlier flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Unlocking. All right, lost the INS or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT SUMWALT: The fact is a mistake was made here. But the mistake is often times a symptom of a flawed system.

BRUMFIEL: That's NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt. The board concluded that a lack of automated safety systems, poor procedures and lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration all set the stage for that single, fateful mistake.

MONTAGNE: And that's Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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