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Former FAA Consultant Claims Agency Failed to Act on SpaceShip Two Warnings

07/31/2015 | 10:27pm US/Eastern
By Andy Pasztor 

Federal Aviation Administration officials repeatedly failed to act on safety warnings about an experimental rocket ship backed by billionaire British entrepreneur Richard Branson that crashed in 2014, according to a former agency consultant.

Terry Hardy, who was assigned to the project as a consultant for more than three years beginning in 2011, said in an interview Friday that he had told FAA managers that certain features of SpaceShip Two--along with risk analyses prepared by its designers--were inadequate because they made the proposed space tourism craft dangerously vulnerable to pilot error. "Based on the information I had," Mr. Hardy recalled, the craft "didn't comply with the agency's hazard analysis regulations."

Some of his concerns and proposed recommendations to resolve them were raised in meetings with Mr. Branson's design partner, the Scaled Composites unit of Northrop Grumman Co., but most disappeared inside the FAA bureaucracy, according to Mr. Hardy.

The FAA has authority to issue experimental launch permits, with responsibility in these permits to protect public safety and prevent property damage, injuries or fatalities to people on the ground. But Congress also charged the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation with simultaneously promoting the burgeoning U.S. commercial space industry.

"When you promote the industry, it's also difficult to do the safety part," according to Mr. Hardy, who added "there are conflicts that come up." Before working as a consultant, Mr. Hardy was an employee in the space transportation office and played a central role in drafting the hazard-assessment rules that specifically apply to experimental launches. Asked why he left his consulting role, Mr. Hardy said the accident "was a contributing cause."

In email responses, an FAA spokesman said the agency is explicitly "prohibited from regulating crew safety" and is restricted "to only protecting the safety of the uninvolved public and property." The agency, it added, "ensures commercial space transportation is as safe as possible for those Congress mandated the FAA to protect."

The spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Hardy's concerns or why he stopped consulting, adding that the agency was reviewing National Transportation Safety Board recommendations prompted by the accident. To determine risk to the public, the FAA assesses the safety and reliability of spacecraft systems since a crash could injure or kill people on the ground.

The NTSB released safety recommendations on Tuesday after determining that SpaceShip Two's inadequate design--lacking fail-safe protections against a pilot mistakenly releasing a movable tail surface at the wrong time--led to the October 2014 event that broke the spaceplane apart roughly 10 miles high and killed the co-pilot.

The board also concluded that Scaled Composites made a fundamental mistake by assuming pilots would always release the locking mechanism at the correct instant. In their formal report, investigators criticized FAA managers for failing to provide adequate guidance to industry about human factors, and for implementing procedures that restricted the flow of data and sometimes kept employees from fully understanding engineering details of the vehicles they were licensing.

Scaled Composites said it "made changes in the wake of the accident to further enhance safety" and pledged to "continue to look for additional ways to do so." Virgin Galactic LLC said it began implementing safety enhancements prior to the NTSB recommendations.

Other documents released by the board suggest that officials of Mr. Branson's Virgin Galactic--which has tried since the accident to distance itself from Scaled Composites and the craft's design--signed off on questionable features years before the accident.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Galactic, which has made technical and procedural enhancements since the accident, declined to comment on the design, noting the company "will be focused on executing the safest program we can."

In a statement, Kevin Mickey, president of Scaled Composites, reiterated that representatives of his company and Virgin Galactic years ago "evaluated and discussed alternatives for making" the craft's design more robust, ending up with the option subsequently criticized by the NTSB.

In a January interview with the safety board, Mr. Hardy, among other things, said SpaceShip Two's design improperly "relied on the pilot making the right decision" instead of ensuring separate fail-safe features to prevent a potentially catastrophic mistake by the crew.

According to a summary of that interview released by the NTSB earlier this week, Mr. Hardy also said that "he had never seen an applicant [for an FAA launch permit] make the assumption that a pilot would not make a mistake" as part of a formal hazard analysis.

In the same interview summary, Mr. Hardy is quoted saying that after offering suggestions for changes to the FAA, he felt it was like "spinning my wheels" and concluded that neither his recommendations nor his work "was improving the safety process."

The extensive collection of documents and other interview summaries released by the NTSB underscores that Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and the FAA all recognized the potential for a catastrophic event caused by what is known as a single-point human failure. But over the years, the design remained unchanged and the FAA, without a request from Scaled, issued a waiver in 2013 from its own regulations.

In his interview with NTSB experts, according to the summary, Mr. Hardy said he was surprised by FAA's unilateral action. "It seemed a little odd that the FAA was writing a waiver" without a request from Scaled Composites, he said in the interview, particularly because "he had never seen the FAA write a waiver for a public applicant."

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed comment from Virgin Galactic to a spokesman. The comment came from a spokeswoman.

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