tv The Cycle MSNBC October 31, 2014 12:00pm-1:01pm PDT
test flight, two pilots on board. these type of test flights are equipped with parachutes. after the anomaly chutes were reportedly seen in the desert. "the cycle" is up next. we continue to follow that breaking news. the california highway patrol reporting at least one person dead and one serious injury after a test run of virgin galactic spaceship two resulted in a crash in the mojave desert. nbc's tom costello is following the very latest for us. tom, what do you have? >> well, this is a real setback for virgin galactic and, of course, a tragedy for the people involved, the families involved. virgin galactic spaceship two was on a test flight. they are in a series -- they are conducting a series of test flights. ultimately to the run-up, their goal of putting paying passengers on this vehicle that would take them to suborbit. not orbit, but suborbit. allow them to feel the
weightlessness of space and fly back to earth. today during this test flight we're told, and you're looking at file video, this is not today video, file video. during this test flight as the rocket was firing -- or the engine was firing from spaceship two something, it appears, went terribly wrong. and the vehicle came apart. on board this spaceship two, two test pilots. i was there in january when we had a test flight and we should underscore that nbc news has been a partner with virgin galactic documenting some of this. anyway, back in january i met the chief pilot and pilot on board at the time and talked about how this whole thing works. the bottom line, you fly up to an altitude of 45,000 feet or so in the mother ship you see there, the whiteknight. when they get to that altitude, spate ship two drops. when it drops away from whiteknight, it fires a rocket. the goal was to accepted it up into a very low earth orbit. at that point, we're talking 70,000, 75,000 feet, at this
point you would have that weightlessness before the vehicle then glides back to earth like the space shuttle. it does not have the capacity to do any sort of maneuvers other than, you know, just a normal glider would. it can't, in other words, have a powered maneuver. in any event, something went wrong today as they test-fired this engine. they've been working on the engines trying to come up with a better design and something went terribly wrong. we don't know the names or identities of people on board. and we -- it is very early in that investigation. on the scene, they report they had two parachutes unknown whether anybody survived this, but two parachutes and significant debris. i think this really is going to call into question the viability, at least immediately, of putting paying passengers on a vehicle bound for low earth orbit. this is still very, very risky business. >> you mentioned the viability of people watching this, nbc reporting.
you had over 700 people who paid or put down some kind of deposit to fly this kind of aircraft in the future. what is the impact there of that and this as a commercial option this is. >> when i was there, i was talking to virgin galactic and i have had conversations with richard branson about this, their goal was to have as many as four or five or six of these vehicles in circulation, cycling through, taking paying passengers up every single day or six days a week, out of their facility in new mexico. people are putting down somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000 for a ride. i think that at this point this is a very big setback, of course, for virgin galactic and for any attempt to put paying attentions on a vehicle into space. i don't know what it's -- we have to see what the investigation reveals. you know, virgin galactic was hopeful that as early as late 2015 they might be able to put paying attentions on one of these vehicles headed for low
earth orbit or low orbit, suborbit. i think at this point that is almost certainly not going to happen. and you've got to wonder whether this entire idea may be called into question. here's why. it is not a reflection in in way on the individuals on the spaceship today. we don't want to say that. if you talk to anybody involved in this business, you know, we saw it two days ago with the commercial rocket headed for the space station. this is a very, very risky proposition. any time you put people on any sort of a rocket, you fire that rocket, you put them at a very high altitude and ultimately into any sort of an orbit or suborbit, it is very risky, very dangerous business. and i think that probably a lot of people will be asking themselves, is this something that we are ready for or that the technology is yet ready for? >> that is certainly an important question here. tom, you mentioned that parachutes were seen. how well trained are pilots for something like this happening? do they go through drills before
in case this is the situation, they know exactly what to do? >> these -- i will tell you that the pilots who are flying for virgin galactic on spaceshiptwo are extraordinary in terms of their training. they're all veterans, many from the military, many have been former astronauts. david mckay, chief pilot of virgin galactic came from the british military, then chief pilot at virgin atlantic. he's been around many, many, many years. so, they know how to jump out of a plane with a parachute on. but you cannot, you cannot plan for jumping out of a vehicle at that speed at an extreme altitude of, say -- we don't know what altitude they were at, but they generally would drop that spaceshiptwo from the mothership, at something like 40,000 feet. assuming they gained any altitude beyond that -- that's a very high altitude with very little oxygen. we don't know the speed they were traveling at. there are a lot of dynamics here
that would make -- could make survival very questionable. >> tom, i have two questions for you. one, how many other companies are working on this type of space tourism vehicle in the way virgin galactic is working on? the second question is, what kind of training are these more than 800 people or 70 0 people who have bought tickets on these spacecrafts, what kind of training are they undergoing to take this kind of trip? >> the individuals who are signing up to take this trip, the idea was, and i asked this question, when i was there with them, the idea is that they would come to the virgin galactic facility in new mexico. keep in mind, today this accident was in the mojave desert in california. ultimately they were going to lift off from new mexico. they were going to come in a couple days in advance, giving them training saying, you have to keep your seat belt on. you can't unbuckle your seat
belt until given the sign by the crew. then you're allowed to float around for a bit. nothing in the way of, if this thing comes apart, here's how you survive, or putting on the proper, you know, suit, if you will, or even an being on again mask or anything of that nature. so, i'm not sure that anybody was really expecting thus far that paying passengers would be going through any kind of training that you would expect from a pilot or certainly an astronaut. i cannot give you, to answer your second question, i can't give you a specific number of other companies that are looking at this as a possible commercial venture. >> tom, we're reporting one pilot here dead. that's per the california highway patrol and one injured. the original statement here from virgin galactic referring to this as a serious anomaly and saying the vehicle suffered that serious anomaly, which resulted in the loss of the vehicle. but the whiteknighttwo carrier aircraft landed safely. they say our first concern is
the status of the pilots which we're reporting one deceased, one injured, per highway patrol. what else can you tell us about this type of situation, you know, when you have this kind of injury and this kind of danger to the pilots? >> well, listen, you know, they call these test vehicles for a reason. this is a -- this truly is a vehicle that they are pushing the envelope on in terms of technology and in terms of, you know, our own collective knowledge about how well you can put one of these vehicles into this type of an altitude and into a suborbit. i think it's too early to draw any conclusions about where the investigation is going to go. clearly, there will be a very detailed investigation that virgin galactic will launch. i assume you might get the help from, of course, virgin's partners involved in this on the ground there in mojave. up might, you might, iunder score, get help from the ntsb, but this is a test vehicle.
so i would assume unless nasa reaches out and offers some assistance, probably nasa would not necessarily be involved in this. this is in no way a nasa-related vehicle. you know, there is a special zone in the mojave desert the faa cleared for test flights. that's it, they are test flights. trying to determine exactly what the limits are, this type of a vehicle is something they've been very much engaged in for, you know, the better part of 18 months. they were going to have many more test flights before they actually put paying passengers on board. >> tom costello, thank you so much. please stay with us. keep us updated with anything knew you learn. let's bring in former corporate pilot, anthony roman. what more can you tell us about this spaceship, how it's intended to work and operate. >> well, this is a fantastic enterprise that began with a world renowned innovative
aerospace engineer burt rotan. he and a quaul tied group of renegade engineers with apple computers rented some space in the mojave desert and they began designing the first civilian spacecraft. they won something called the "x" prize with spaceshipone to put civilian astronauts into suborbit. it's a very interesting aircraft in that the spaceship actually has its tail fold 90 degrees upwards. and then float like a falling leaf back down to earth. that eliminates the need for any heat shield whatsoever. remarkable aircraft but highly dangerous. the company was acquired by virgin atlantic and then they
morphed into virgin galactic. so this spaceshiptwo enterprise is a highly risky venture, as all space travel is. it is to go into orbit for the era of space tourism. everybody knows the riveng and they go under the extensive astronaut training. >> explain suborbit. >> 70 to 72 miles above the surface of the earth. that would be statute miles. the occupants will actually experience the feeling of being in space. they will see the curvature of the earth. they will experience weightlessness. and it's actually supposed to be quite the experience.
i think this is a significant business setback, not a technological setback since all spacecraft are experimental and come with expected high ricks. >> anthony, you have one dead, one injured, according to the california highway patrol for this test run for the space tourism program. you have a number of people who signed up to do this, willing to pay as much as $250,000. tom costello was saying at that speed, at that height, there's no real way to prepare for an incident like this. and it makes you really think, anthony, and question whether this program is actually worth it in the end. >> well, all new technology is worth it. it comes risk with new experiment. if we were to make the world a completely safe place, there would be no progress in technology.
so everyone who undergoes a flight in a spacecraft is made to understand the risk and accept those risks. it's part of the pioneer spirit. >> and, anthony, what are seen as the particular vulnerabilities. we know they recently switched to an alternative plastic type of fuel grain, a different type of fuel there. we know they've been working on improving the engine of this spaceship. talk to us about what it is specifically about space flight that makes it so risky and so experimental. >> well, you're actually traveling through the outer layers of the earth's atmosphere into an incredibly hostile environment. it's a full vacuum. you have space debris, microscopic in some instances space debris, that can hit the spacecraft. the rocket powered technology is highly volatile by its very nature. you're traveling at incredible
rates of speed. so, all of it combined make it a hostile environment and incredibly risky technology. but that goes with all space travel, all new technology and pushing the outer limits. >> anthony, as we look at this breaking news of the spaceshiptwo crashing, one confirmed fatality. i want to read you something burt rutan said in 2008 and he designed spaceshipone. he said to the points you've been raising, the vehicle is designed to go into the atmosphere. worst case, straight in or upside down it will be at least as safe as the early airliners of the 1920s. and then he says, don't believe anyone that tells you the safety will be the same as a modern airliner, which has been around for 70 years. is that the right way to think about this early, early stage technology inherently risky? >> i think it's exactly the way to think about it. the early airliners of the '20s were a risky endeavor and went
down with some regularity. so did the early single-engine, single-pilot aircraft. it's a series of technological steps and mishaps and learning from those mishaps and the successes that eventually build to modern and safe technology. >> anthony, help us better understand the space tourism program for the people that have signed up to do this. walk us through what sort of experience that would be, how high they would go, how scary this mission would be. help us understand what this is all about. >> well, it's a very interesting experience. virgin galactica has built a world class space port out in the mojave desert, both for the technological development of the spacecraft, the testing of the spacecraft and the training of the civilian astronauts who have forecasted over a considerable amount of money to undergo the
experience. they have to go through extensive medical testing, extensive training as fledgling astronauts. and part of that adventurous spirit is the risk involved. there are many of us who just accept higher risks to the experiences we undergo and that's the preferred method of living for us. so it's a group of people who have absolutely expected the risk, walk into it with eyes wide open and are informed of all of the possibilities that can occur. >> anthony roman, stay with us as we are on this breaking news story. we want to go right now to bring in retired nasa astronaut mark kelly joining us on the phone. good day to you. >> good afternoon. >> what do you think as you see -- we are looking at file footage here of spaceshiptwo and we're seeing, of course, these reports of at least one pilot dead.
what are your thoughts right now on this tough story? >> let me first clarify. the name of the company is virgin galactic, not virgin galactica, as your previously caller was saying. my thoughts are with, you know, the -- the family of the deceased pilot, if that actually turns out to be true. you know, this is a tough business. you know, richard branson has, you know, has taken, you know, a pretty big challenge. and the company has done, you know, an outstanding job to date, you know, being the first company to launch -- the first private company to launch people into space and do it the same spacecraft, you know, two weeks larts for the xprize was a remarkable achievement. but this is a dangerous business. and, you know, there are going to be accidents. you know, you mentioned early aviation with early airliners.
there was a high accident rate. those early pilots, you know, suffered -- there were some high casualties at times. so, i mean, my thoughts and prayers are certainly with the company right now and all the people involved. >> indeed. mark kelly, krystal ball here. talk to us about how as a pilot going into what you know is a risky and dangerous proposition, how you sort of process and don't think about that risk as you're there doing your job. >> you know, test pilots like they have working for them, you know, at virgin, you know, they love this stuff. you know, they love doing, you know, stuff that's challenging and test flight is incredibly, incredibly challenging thing to do, especially when your vehicle is going to go up into space. you know, the preparation for a flight like this is, you know, a lot of practice in a simulator, a lot of analysis ahead of time, understanding -- trying to understand, you know, where the
vehicle can experience some problems. and there is a lot you can prepare for. and then at the end of the day, there are some things you can't prepare for like a catastrophic failure of the vehicle all at once. you know, it's going to take some time to get the details of what happened here, but i'm confident virgin galactic is going to, you know, will recover from this. >> for our viewers trying to make sense of how special this kind of experimental flight is going up into the altitude of about 45,000 feet n plain english, how different is that from commercial flights that people are familiar with? >> a typical commercial flight, you know, you climb up slowly to altitude. if you're going on an overseas flight, maybe in the high 30s, you know, 39,000 feet, maybe up to 45,000 feet. you know, this crew today was lifted up to about that although tutd, probably up to around 45,000 feet.
underneath another airplane called the -- the bigger airplane is whitenooiknighttwo carries spaceshiptwo up to altitude. when they're all ready, spaceshiptwo is released and they ignite the rocket motor. in this case, you know, they've had some -- been experiencing some challenges with this new hybrid rocket motor they've been testing. and from there you basically point the ship straight up, you get up to a speed of about mach five, five times the speed of sound, the engine eventually shuts down and you fly a parabolic up to about 60 miles. i doubt that's what they were planning on doing today but it sounds like they were testing the rocket motor. so, you know, the test would start out at a typical high altitude of a commercial airliner. >> mark, it's jonathan capehart here. you said something at the beginning of your part of the interview here that struck me. you said, this is a dangerous
business. which made me wonder, is the idea of space tourism, the idea of space tourism, is it a ridiculous endeavor to pursue right now? >> absolutely not. you know, flying airplanes was a dangerous business in the 1920s and '30s. pushing the envelope is what leads to technological advancement. you know, i know richard branson is not doing this just so he can bring passengers up to an altitude of 68 miles and safely back to the ground. you know, ultimately, you know, he and others envision that the way you would get, let's say, from los angeles to london would not be on an airplane somewhere in the future, it would be a spacecraft. if i was to take off in the space shuttle from the kennedy space shuttle in florida and wanted to land in london, i can do that in about 25 minutes. the future is that, you know, travel around this planet will,
you know, be in a spacecraft and not necessarily always an airplane. but the way do you that is you have to -- you know, you have to take risks. have you to push the envelope. you know, have you to expand, you know, our knowledge of aviation and aerospace engineering. so, no, i certainly don't believe that this is, you know, undue risk. everything they're trying to do is absolutely doable. it is a risky business to be in. but you got to remember, this was a test flight of a relatively new engine for them. and, you know, test pilots are assuming additional risks that the passengers won't be assuming. and, you know, they will ultimately get there. >> mark, have you had a chance to speak with richard branson about his vision for this program? >> yeah, i spent some time with richard last year. and, you know, i've had the pleasure of being with him on a
number of different occasions when we have spoken about virgin galactic. you know, he's a visionary. you know, he is the kind -- you know, the kind of person that, you know, that moves our -- you know, moves civilization forward. guys like thomas edison. elon musk is a good example, who's pushing the envelope with spacex and with tesla, you know, investors and entrepreneurs are incredibly important for this country. and, you know, and for the planet. you know, i think richard is one of them. >> mark kelly, thank you so much. for joining us. on the phone now is james oberg, former nasa mission controller. thank for being with us. you can see right there a part of this equipment that -- you can see it's just landed there. james, you know, as we've been talking about, you're really taking a risk, pushing the envelope with this first mission
to take people up to space. it's really the worst nightmare we are seeing play out right now. what are your initial thoughts? >> i was stanning there ten years ago when branson's spaceshipone made two of three flights. i was there at mojave and it was a great experience to be there. it was a great feeling you were at the new dawn of era of transportation. it's not just a matter of stunt flying, even though in the 1920s it was stunt flying that pushed -- that pushed airplanes to higher and higher levels of performance. this kind of project, and there are several others that are similar in nature out there, at least two or three we know of, is the sort of thing that millionaires pay for. but in the end the technology becomes available for all kinds of other transportation access to space. so, it's not -- it wasn't a dead end. and it's not going to stop. but this mistake, the mistake that happened here and then
these kind of accidents don't come out of the blue. there was something that was overlooked. and that's going to be what they have to find. even in the big -- with the big boys at nasa and the shuttles, two of them were lost. it wasn't something that was out of left field. it was management decisions that were wrong. and even were argued about at the time. but got made wrong. so, we'll look at this. i'm sure they're going to look at it. >> i mean, james -- >> there's been speculation as to what the problem was already. >> james, as we're speaking with you, we are looking at the images that tell both sides of this story. we're looking at previous file footage and then we're also looking at the first images we're getting of this debris on the ground in the mojave desert. a sad sight when you think about one loss of life there. we're also seeing what several folks have talked about, which is the promise of this technology. put this in the context for us as well of the previous deathly accident that happened related to this, not on a launch, but in
2007 scaled composites which worked on these -- the spaceship technology, had an accident, an explosion that ultimately resulted in the loss of lives of three employees there. i know you followed this for a while. tell us about that. >> you focused precisely on the area that needs the most attention, which is the power plant. we're going to have to wait to see the video from the carrier aircraft because the carrier aircraft was video -- was taping and observing spaceshiptwo as it dropped and ignited. let's remember the important thing. this was the first time they were trying to ignite this new designed engine after they had trouble with a previous design. and that's part of the major delays over the last year or so. so, this is the first time they were doing in-flight ignition. they have -- they have -- they've actually been up there -- i'm sorry. they had -- they had themselves one short-term flight earlier. they turned it on -- turned one
on briefly. but this is going to be a much longer firing of a -- of this new design. and the -- it's made of solid fuel. one of the problems solid fuel has that you -- can cause tremendous explosions if the grain cracks. if it cracks and the fire is to be down the central nozzle in the chamber blows up other parts of the engine. this is a highly compact ball of energy. just as the previous pilot said, you need lots of energy to push yourself up to the edge of space. you've got to have it in a controllable that also you can release fast enough to give you the propulsion you need. and it is extremely difficult to get the balance right. clearly, the people at the company were struggling with the safety of this kind of technology. the explosion several years ago was in the engine design that they eventually abandoned and have gone to a variation of that
design, which -- well, we'll have to see what was involved here. but if the explosion occurred almost immediately on ignition, that would be one thing. if it was a few seconds later, it will tell something else. but at 45,000 feet, the odds bailing out at 45,000 feet is not a big problem unless your vehicle has come apart. and in which case you're likely to be hit by debris as well as extra forces. we'll find out a lot more. the main thing is that there are people who put their lives on the line today and have suffered for it. >> indeed. james, as you were indicating, this test today was to be the first test since january. what sort of stress test would they go through before they actually went forward, had the confidence level to go guard with this sort of a test flight? >> you're right. they would do a lot of ground tests, vibration tests. they would subject the engine to the kind of stresses they would expect it to have in flight and
then try to ignite it safely. if it keeps i guess nighting safely and if there's ways for it to be robust enough not to fail or if it does fail, to fail in a -- in a controlled way, then they're ready to approve if for flight. they did the safety review. i would like to hear more about it but it's a private company. they'll be working to get it right. they have a lot of money on the line. of course, they have -- it's more than just this particular project. it's the entire virgin empire is behind this project. so, i expect them to find -- try and find a way to make this work. >> right. it was just after 10 a.m. pacific time today that ground controllers at mojave space port lost contact. spaceshiptwo, experimental test flight, disappeared after it separated from whiteknightto.
they reported one dead, one injured. you're talking about this poernlpoern potentially being something that was missed, something that went wrong. now questions will be asked. how does this investigation begin? where do they start to figure out where they might have gone wrong here? >> these are great questions because the investigation, first of all, does not begin with a theory. you can't go into an investigation thinking it may be the engine or may be this or that. we can do that because we're sitting on the sidelines. but the people who are digging into it, and i've done these kind of investigations myself, have to keep their minds clear of any explanation so they cannot subconsciously bias their subjection of clues. the clues are out there in radio communication and radio signals from the ship. there's also a lot of clues that will come from the carrier aircraft because that's not been mentioned that the carrier aircraft was watching the vehicle at the time. and i'm sure that what they saw
ask what they reported over the radio to the ground is going to be extremely important. we'll eventually hear what it is. we'll hear what they said. but it's going to be dramatic as well. those are the clues they're going to gather and follow the clues back to potential explanations. because the pieces are all there, some of them damaged or not, but they'll find them. and because there are plenty of witnesses. i'm sure they'll find a way back to the cause and what they overlooked and hopefully a fix for that. >> james, talk about how the virgin galactic program was viewed within the nasa community, within the broader community. interested in exploring space. was this seen as a money-making venture or a way to push the boundaries and push technology forward? >> people in the space community knew space technology is not where you spend money to get rich. somewhere where you go to spend
money the idea how do you make a million dollars in the space company? the answer is, start with $10 million. and that's happened to numerous people who tried to build rockets, tried to do other money-making schemes. these are pioneering schemes. the kind of vehicle we're talking about, the kind of design burt rutan came up with an aircraft carrier with a roktd. scaled up. scaled up by follow-on companies, including rutan's original company in the mojave desert. they are taking apart air carriers, a rocket plane that can take something all the way up into orbit. so, we're looking at a technology here with a reusable carrier vehicle and then a dropable upper stage to go as
far and as high as you can get. it's being worked out. it's a promising technology. there are more bumps along the road than people might have hoped. people aren't too surprised when this does happen, including -- and i have to say for the men who put their lives on the line every day doing this kind of thing. when those people and those men and women are the test pilots in space, they don't fool themselves. they realize that the dice -- they try to load the dice in their favor but there's always an option something could go wrong, as sadly it did today. >> james oberg, thank you so much. keep us updated. i want to bring in tom costello with nbc news. what's the very latest we know here? >> well, i got to tell you, we don't know a heck of a lot more since we've been updating you through the afternoon. we know from the california highway patrol we have one individual, we believe the pilot
has been killed and the other pilot is injured. two pilots aboard this test vehicle. we need tounder score, it's a test vehicle. no paying attentions on board yet. under the normal protocols they were to climb to about 45,000 under whiteknighttwo, the mothership, and drop from whiteknighttwo as we saw in january from a test flight. they would fire the rocket that would carry them up to a good 70,000, 75,000 feet. that was the test flight back in january. ultimately, the goal was to put them even higher potentially and into a suborbit for just a few minutes and then they would drift back down to earth, glide back down to the runway there at the mojave desert. the space port virgin galactic is building is in new mexico, as you probably know. the facilities in mojave are test facilities. virgin galactic led by richard
branson hoped to put paying passengers on board these spaceships and cycle them through. give them a chance to experience this is at about $250,000 a ride. and then they would refresh the engines, refresh the entire vehicle and it would be ready for a lift-off or a launch within a week or so. i think there are significant questions today about whether that's now going to be significantly derailed or at least delayed because of this tragic accident. we need to hasten to add, we don't know who was on board thistic vehicle. there are the virgin ga latdtic pilots who worked for virgin galactic and then the people that worked for the contractor, if you will, who helps build these vehicles. they built the vehicles and then turn them over to virgin galactic. we don't know who was on board. obviously, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families involved. they have the best and the
brightest that we experienced back in january. they hired former military personnel, most british. they hired veteran commercial pilots, former astronauts. they have a star-spangled list, if you will, of the best and brightest in aviation and those who enjoy the test flight adrenaline. as mark kelly mentioned, they know what they're getting into. they enjoy the rush. the chief pilot, dave mckay, who said it was an incredible rush, an incredible experience to feel that rocket fire that you're sitting on, fire that rocket and then soar, take off toward the dark blue or even the black of space. that was such an adrenaline rush, he was excited about the prospects of sharing is that experience with other people who might be on board, with paying passengers. at this point, that clearly is now on hold as they try to determine what happened here. whatever it is, if you look at these pieces, not only of course are we looking at burned out and twisted and broken pieces of the
fuselage, but we do see scorch marks on the desert as well as in the wreckage. so, this would go to that -- that discussion we had earlier about what type of an anomaly, to use virgin galactic's words, what type of an anomaly did they suffer at this significant altitude and did it apparently -- it would appear just by the naked eye, it would appear that, in fact, there was some sort of an explosion involved or a fire of some sort involved. and that, you know, we don't know how easily anybody could survive a parachute fall from that altitude. >> right. certainly many, many questions to come from this. tom, this was a company founded by british billionaire richard branson. you recently spoke to him about his vision for this program. this has got to be his worst nightmare. what did he tell you about his hopes for this program? >> yeah. his hope is to share the
experience for everybody, to share the experience and the thrill of space flight. obviously, this is not a full space flight as if you were going to the space station and you're going to -- which is at about 250 miles above the earth, depending on the particular orbit they're in at any given time. he wanted people to experience the feeling of weightlessness, being free, experiencing that which so few of us have ever experienced. you know, richard branson, you know, we used to be a bit of a daredevil, you may recall. i mean, he took these flights and these experimental vehicles with burt rutan. he also, of course, was in the balloon, trying to make his way around the world in a balloon flight that -- without ever touching down. unfortunately, their balloon crashed. thankfully they survived. but he has always been one to push the envelope and to try to push the experiences of being alive. you know, if you talk to richard for any period of time, it's clear that he believes that part of being alive is living life to the fullest. and taking advantage of the
adrenaline and that gives him great pleasure and he wanted to experience that with others. he's not one easily deterred so i suspect at least initially he's going to say, you know, this is not going to stop this effort. it may delay us as we try to determine what happened but it won't stop us. you know, the only issue i might take issue with or disagree with mark kelly, or ask him about, he was saying this is an experimental vehicle and we're pushing the bounds of what is possible and that you have to expect any sort of a tragedy or any sort of a malfunction. that certainly is true but i think it's easier to attach those sentiment, to a commercial rocket with nobody on board than it is to a vehicle you're hoping to put paying passengers on as soon as 2015. i think the question is going to be, is this vehicle ready now for that kind of service? is it ready for prime time with people who are not astronauts, who are not test pilots, who are
not trained for any sort of a malfunction or an anomaly, let alone any sort of a catastrophic event like this. >> tom, this also comes on the heels of that failed launch and explosion in wallops, virginia. to your point for a public considering whether this is a proposition worth taking, that, fortunately, was unmanned so there were no fatalities there and they're still working to figure out what happened there on wallops island, virginia. these two incidents coming so closely together has to have an impact in terms of the public's mind set. >> to the public mind set, yes. but it's very important we distinguish between these two events. first of all you have orbital sciences which runs that antares rocket that exploded on tuesday. i was at wallops island, virginia. this was a vehicle that was using soviet engines that were designed 40 years ago. and it was under some supervision from nasa, as it conducted this mission to the space station.
this particular vehicle that we're looking at now, the one that has crashed in the mojave desert has no relationship whatsoever to nasa. this is an attempt to put people into very high altitude or even suborbit. it is not in any way a space experience and did not have that kind of rigorous oversight. it has oversight, don't get me wrong. i think the folks at virgin galactic and partner companies would say they're being very vigilant in trying to take the strictest safety protocols, adhere to them and play this very safely. but this is not the same as, you know, the commercial attempts to resupply the space station and ultimately to carry individuals to the space station, astronauts to the space station. these are really very distinct situations. >> tom costello, stay with us. i want to bring in michael kay, a military pilot for 20 years with the british royal air force and working on a new show on the commercial space race.
this is a really sad situation that has unfolded this morning. really, the first program of its kind to take people up to space. you know, you're the type of person that would sign up for a mission like this. what are your initial thoughts? >> well, it's funny you should mention that, krystal, because i'm executive producing at the moment a new documentary on the final frontier of the commercial space race. it's exactly that. what we're seeing at the moment is a huge setback for richard branson's virgin galactic. what we've been seeing over the past ten years is effectively the right stuff of the commercial space race. but the commercial space race is kind of a -- it's a misleading name that has already been commented upon. it's a hugely competitive business at the moment. you've not just got richard branson, you have xcorp in see air sierra, nevada, working to get
customers up to suborbital conditions. it's 100 kilometers off the earth's surface. it's not in space. what these projects are trying to do, they're effectively trying to launch a vehicle into suborbit for a few moments to give someone that feeling of weightlessness. and then come back down to earth. so, these projects are not launching people into space or up to the space station. they're very different projects that are going on. i think what's been -- what's happened today is a huge setback for virgin galactic. one thing i would say is my sources have informed me that what was going on today was actually the testing of a new hybrid rocket motor and a new fuel system. so, this was a very key moment, a very key milestone in achieving those ames that richard branson's -- >> michael o the fuel, aviation week reporting on that that they had been using a hydroxal fuel based on a form of rubber.
this was the chance to test new polyam grain oil. to the point of the risk in these tests, explain so people understand, why these have to be man tests if this was the first time they were trying this different grain fuel? >> well, i think the -- as already mentioned, ari, i think there's a number of different companies at the moment that are all exploring these new envelopes. virgin galactic are using what's called a mothership. so spaceshiptwo will be, as you've seen from all the pictures, it's actually dropped from the mothership. it's like the -- if we go back to the late 1950s, early 1960s, it's like the x-15 rocket that chuck yeager flew when he was dropped off a b-52. a very similar method to that. that's very hard to replicate automatically. and the point is, is that people don't want to go up into suborbital conditions on an automatic rocket. they want to feel like, you know, they have people in control very experienced pilots,
very experienced astronauts. that's why they have to be tested as such. if you look at xcore, they are going above and beyond. they have an rlv, a relaunchable vehicle. that takes off conventionally from an airfield. it takes off like any normal british airways or delta flight would, off a conventional runway. gets to suborbital and then lands on conditional runway. sierra nevada has a conventional rocket put on a rocket ship, launched into suborbit and parachutes back down. there are a number of ways achieving these. richard branson is going for the x-15 mothership which needs to be tested by real people to report back on what it's like to be on the envelope, to make sure the safety conditions are met in the future. >> we know we had 700-plus paying customers signed up, ready to take a trip on one of these vehicles.
where was virgin galactic in terms of the sort of business development timeline? when were they hoping to have this technology ready and available for paying tourist customers? >> that's a great question, krystal. if you look at the competition with xcore in sierra, nevada, one, at least possibly two years in front of them. it would be a huge setback for that. each company is using very different methods in order to get into orbit. from what -- having spoken to virgin galactic team last week, i think within the next 12 months this was a really real prospect of spaceshiptwo achieving that. this is a huge setback. >> we now know the fire department is on the scene there. they're there to secure -- to secure the scene and they're going to then turn over everything to the federal
government. the debris field is estimated to be about two miles wide. as i'm listening to you, michael, and to our other guests, there's something interesting here. despite the tragedy, despite the loss of at least one person dead, there seems to be -- i'm getting a sense from you and others that this was being viewed as an advance. i would like for you to talk about how pushing the envelope like this is known to be dangerous, but it's a danger that people like the pilots who were on board this experimental aircraft and others, especially those involved in the astronaut business, it's a danger they're willing to take on. >> yeah, i mean, i think -- certainly when -- during my days in the military, you're constantly assessing risk all the time. the reason these pilots will be chosen to do this job is, a, because of a personal passion of aviation and space. and, b, is because they've
become the best in their game at assessing ricks. when i was flying, risk was about probability versus consequence. you were constantly going back on the probability of something happening and the consequences of what the actions were. and you constantly are assessing that. so you know, these guys and girls that are involved in this space race will be the very best in their field at assessing the risks on a second-by-second basis. from the personal perspective, if you read the wright stuff and people that looked at the very first space race in the 1950s and 1960s when the f-16 was around, and exploring the sound barrier and breaking the sound barrier, you have to read the wright stuff the way chuck y yeager. it's just something bred from within. you're constantly assessing the risk. you won't do something where risks are completely against
you, but sometimes things do go wrong. >> michael, we're looking at this footage, overhead footage of the mojave desert on this wide, wide scene. two-mile wide accident scene. some emergency emt response units can't even see much of the debris from their stations. we've got on the screen as well so our viewers see one of the close-ups of some of the debris that has been identified and located there. and as we've been reporting, one co-pilot killed. another according to reuters and other reporting, ejected and suffered what is being called moderate to major injuries. with your experience both as a pilot and dealing with the sort of commercial side of this that you've been studying, what could we expect on injuries for this other pilot that people are obviously worried about? >> well, i think you speak to anyone that's ejected from an aircraft, it's an incredibly
brutal experience. having had a couple friends that have been through that process, it's effectively around a 25 yn the seat. but then you've got to remember that most jets are traveling and the mothership will be traveling in an excess of 300 knots. most travel at 470, 500 miles an hour. you're effectively being pushed at 25 g into a 500 knot airstream. that is an incredibly brutal thing. you've got to have all your limbs pulled in. there are certain restraints that automatically pull you into the seat as you are ejected out of these things. just by mere fact there is an ejection seat within the actual aircraft doesn't necessarily guarantee a safe ejection and certainly as we've seen in this case sadly there's been one death and one severely injured.
but again, when the aircraft is traveling at seven miles a minute and it dropped from 50,000 feet before the engines kicked in. these are all very, very serious sequencing systems that are operating. at any point it can go wrong. these guys would have to be ready to pull a handle and get an ejection going. but if there's been an explosion on the board compromising integrity of the aircraft, then those ejections can go wrong. and it's not always guaranteed to get you out safe and well. >> all right, michael kay thank you so much for your insights. i want to bring back anthony roman. i do want to just clarify. we don't know that there was an ejection. nbc news hasn't confirmed that. we're not clear there were ejection seats in that aircraft. but we do know ntsb is sending a go team to investigate that debris field, that crash of
spaceship 2. what will some of the first activities be? >> well, first the entire scene, that entire two square mile scene will be secured. then a notice will go out to all personnel and residents who would be in the general vicinity that if any debris is located that a special number hotline should be called and the debris should not be touched. and special members of the go team will go out and collect that. then they'll actually try and re-build the aircraft with as much of the debris as they can find. and actually try and determine how the aircraft failed by that process. there will be aeronautical engineen enginee engineers, electrical engineers and all of the specialties that go into building an aircraft in assessing how this accident happened. >> talk to us about that
government role. because this is not like a nasa crash. this is not a government situation as tom costello is emphasizing. yet the faa intimately involved, leading the investigation already putting out that statement that we read. and at the local level where this is a huge, huge story, obviously, you have a site there, a hangar that local taxpayers supported in a public/private partnership to do this new technology. >> yes. and the faa does have jurisdiction over this accident. it was the faa that issued the first civilian astronaut wings to the first pilot of spaceship 1 after their successful flight. so yes this was a partnership with the governor and people of new mexico. this new technology, a lot of
land was contributed to this process. creating an off lot of jobs and excitement in new mexico. you have to understand that the experimental aircraft community is alive and well in the broad based community today overseen by the faa. there are many small companies experimenting kit planes to aviation pilots across the country, built in garages, built in basements and flown successfully today. >> anthony, you know, this was a test run for people to ultimately get the experience to go up to space. really the first of its kind. what we know now is as one pilot is killed, another one suffered moderate to major injuries. for people just tuning in, give them an idea what this program intended to do for the many people that have already signed up to do this. >> well, it's supposed to be an
incredibly exciting experience while informing the public that signed up for this program, that it is a highly risky venture. flight as a general rule is a risky venture made safe by wonderful training for the pilots and incredible engineering and maintenance. so, you know, the people who sign up for this are adrenaline junkies, adventurers, mountaineers. many of them experience other type of risky adventures. so everyone walks into this with eyes wide open. the experience that they're looking for is the experience of acceleration, those g forces, the adventurers' experience of going into suborbital flight and experiencing weightlessness and
viewing space. and having the bragging rights after your landing that you experienced this and you were one of the first space tourists. >> right. and pushing those boundaries, which this company was trying to do. and obviously those brave pilots were doing with their lives on the line. anthony roman, commercial pilot and investigator, thank you for giving your perspective this hour. we're going to do another check in with a former nasa mission controller. walk us through what questions the faa and of course the company here will be asking to get to the bottom of this crash. >> the first place you start with this kind of investigation is clear your mind of any theories. you're not coming into it trying to prove one way or another what you think already happened. that gets in the way. even subconsciously that will create by an investigator. and the clue you should be seen you may not recognize. or the one not too important you
might exaggerate if you think it fits what you already believe. so you clear your mind of any theory and you try to create a timeline of what happens. and it's still not clear to me in all these reports. the important issue, for example, is when did the experience occur? and was it immediately upon ignition of immediately as it dropped? and how long was the burn supposed to last? >> and so the fuel issue we've been reporting on and hearing from our correspondents, any way to know whether that was a precipitating factor? >> we can talk about that because we're watching from the outside. we're not down there in the arena where the real people are struggling with this problem. and certainly that would -- there'll be a dominant candidate, a very leading candidate. because this particular engine of this design, it's called a hybrid design. it's a combined solid and likt design where the solid fuel is
doused with oxidizer. this gives an advantage that you can turn it off. in case of trouble it's designed for you to shut off oxidizer flow and it will quench the solid fuel engine. to some degree, that is a major plus, a safety feature of this kind of engine. they did have trouble with one particular fuel type with the explosion several years ago that killed people. and earlier in flight tests over the last couple years, that particular fuel type was eventually deemed unsuitable. they changed to a new fuel type. this is the first time they tried to light that fuel type in a flight. so, yeah, that is certainly where you would expect the main problem to be. but there's a number of things that can be accidental, completely out of left field. something else that shouldn't have been in the engine compartment, but was. those things also show up often
enough that you can't be bought into being surprised. you should expect to be surprised as they do their investigation and i'm sure they are. the people involved have unfortunately is had experience elsewhere in the many different areas in the military and civilian area. this is something sadly there are experienced and trained people out there who know how to do it right. >> and if you could speak to us about what in your perspective this does to the entire project of space tourism. this has to be seen as a major setback not just for virgin galactic, but for this entire project. >> the bigger thing, the space tourism is the corner of increasing human access to low space then to suborbital space and orbital space. there are many different approaches to it. this is one of many, one potential moneymaker that's going to be definitely delayed. i wouldn't be surprised if a number of people are going to be asking to cash in their tickets.
because it's going to take awhile to fix it. but there are other projects going forward and this design, this approach is a very promising one. >> all right, james oberg and all of our guests this hour, thank you so much. and for those of you at home, this is msnbc's rolling coverage of the crash of virgin galactic spaceship 2 that happened in california. tom costello and the entire nbc team are investigating. alex wagner leads the next hour of coverage. that starts right now. we are following breaking news this afternoon. the county sheriff's office says one pilot was killed and a co-pilot injured when virgin galactic's spaceship 2 crashed over the mojave desert. at this time the cause of the crash is unknown. virgin