WASHINGTON, D.C. - The National Transportation Safety Board wrapped up a nine-month investigation into the fatal SpaceShipTwo test flight in Mojave, Calif., with a hearing Tuesday. The crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo was caused by a premature repositioning of the vehicle's tail wings according to the report by the NTSB.
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The findings confirm a preliminary report by the NTSB in which pilot error was cited as the likely cause of the accident. Northrop Grumman-owned Scaled Composites was testing the spaceship, owned by Richard Branson's startup space company, Virgin Galactic.
Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the industry will be looking to see if the NTSB goes 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," Pace said.
Wayne Hale, the former manager for NASA's space shuttle program, 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."
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 the company to resume test flights later this year. Eventually, the company envisions flights with six passengers climbing more than 62 miles above Earth.
Hale said the accident was unfortunate and has 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," Hale said.