Virgin Galactic spaceship crash: Safety crew to announce cause of smash which killed co-pilot
America's National Transportation Safety Board will meet to give its verdict on what caused a Virgin Galactic spaceship to break apart during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.
The agency will consider the likely cause of the accident over California's Mojave Desert last October. Investigators have been looking into pilot training, the rocket's design and whether mechanical problems played any role.
NTSB officials said early in the investigation that the co-pilot prematurely unlocked equipment designed to slow the descent of the spacecraft during initial re-entry.
Simply unlocking the spacecraft's brakes should not have applied them, but investigators say that might have happened anyway and that the resulting stress may have contributed to the spacecraft's destruction.
Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the industry would be looking to see if the NTSB went beyond the specific cause of the accident in its findings.
"Simply focusing on an immediate cause is usually not enough to understand deeply how to improve safety," he said.
Wayne Hale, the former manager for Nasa's space shuttle programme, said investigators are taught to keep asking why a part failed or why a pilot made a mistake to get to the real root cause of an accident. "If you stop too early, you'll fix the wrong thing," he said.
Virgin Galactic has been proceeding with its plans for space flight and is now building another craft. Company officials have said in recent months that their commitment to commercial spacecraft has not waivered despite the crash and they expect to resume test flights later this year.
Eventually, the company envisages flights with six passengers climbing more than 62 miles above Earth.
Mr Hale said the accident was unfortunate and certainly made the suborbital space industry more cautious, but it could yield some positive results.
"We may come out of this with a safer and more robust industry in the near future," he said.