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Key Function Deployed Early Before SpaceShipTwo's Crash

Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif.
Ringo H.W. Chiu
Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif.

A key function called "feathering," which changes the aerodynamics of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that crashed into the Mojave Desert last week, was engaged too early, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said on Monday.

The function is supposed to be deployed when SpaceShipTwo reached a speed of 1.4 times the speed of sound. Instead, it was deployed when the spacecraft reached Mach 1.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"Two levers were supposed to be pulled when the spacecraft reached Mach 1.4, allowing an action called 'feathering' — which lifts the tail to slow descent and create drag. Instead, a video in the cockpit and other data showed that one of the levers was unlocked early at Mach 1.0, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart told reporters.

"About two seconds later, the tail moved into the extended position, even though a second 'feather' handle was not moved, Hart said.

"'Pilot error is a possibility,' Hart said. 'We're a long way from finding cause.'"

Investigators said they had found the aircraft's fuel tanks, oxidizer tanks and engine on Sunday.

Hart said those parts were intact and showed no sign of an explosion.

"The engine burn was normal up until the extension of the feathers," Hart said.

In an interview with The Financial Times, George Whitesides, the head of Virgin Galactic, said a new spacecraft could be ready to fly next year.

The paper adds:

"A second spacecraft under construction for the last three years in New Mexico is '65 per cent complete,' Mr Whitesides said, adding that it could be ready to fly next year, once the cause of last week's accident has been resolved. 'The second spaceship is getting close to readiness,' he said."

As we've told you, this crash is a potentially serious setback for commercial space tourism.

The spacecraft's goal is to fly briefly into space for tourist trips, costing $250,000 apiece. More than 700 people have already put down deposits.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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