In July 2007, a test of a hybrid nitrous oxide-fueled rocket engine that Scaled Composites planned to use on its SpaceShipTwo space plane failed. The resulting explosion killed three and injured three more. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or Cal/OSHA, has released its investigation report which was obtained under the California Public Information Act. Details of which were posted on the Knights Arrow website.
The release of this information has provided a clearer understanding of what took place that day—until now, other than the fact that the accident occurred and people were injured and killed, little was known about the details surrounding the event.
One of the things that the report states is that Scaled Composites failed to provide adequate training about the hazards involved with the nitrous oxide rocket fuel the company uses in its spacecraft prior to the accident.
Cal/OSHA discovered that Scaled Composites allowed employees to view the Cold Flow Test at a nearby fence. It is not clear whether or not those killed during the accident were at this fence or if this is just one of the issues Cal/OSHA discovered during its investigation.
The investigation report lists the violations for which Scaled Composites was cited. Some of these include the following:
- Enough time existed prior to the accident for the problems to be noted and addressed.
- The management had actual knowledge of the conditions.
- Scaled Composites did not institute a written method or procedure to correct unsafe conditions while conducting the test of the propulsion equipment.
- These issues violated common industry practices.
- Scaled Composites failed to monitor the test site during the time of the accident to ensure that employees were not exposed to amounts of nitrous oxide in excess of 50 parts per million.
- There was a lack of either barriers or adequate distance between the test site and those viewing the test.
To gain an understanding of common safety practices during test firings, AmericaSpace reached out to several rocket manufacturers and requested information regarding how far back viewers are kept from these tests. During tests of ATKs, four and five-segment solid rocket boosters, viewers are kept at a distance of over a mile. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne requires those viewing their tests to be a minimum of 825 feet away, at their A2, B1, and A1 test stands. Information obtained from P&WR states the following concerning the origination of the company’s safety standards: This distance was established per OSHA regulation CFR 1910.110, Process Safety Management, due to the quantity of Hydrogen available on these test stands.
This appears to highlight a separation between how established space firms, such as P&WR, and newer firms, such as Scaled Composites, view the potential risk involved with these tests.
The Mojave, Calif.–based firm’s entry into the Ansari X PRIZE was the now-famous SpaceShipOne spacecraft and its WhiteKnightOne carrier aircraft. This duo launched into sub-orbital space twice within the required two-week timeframe and won the contest.
Having accomplished this, Scaled Composites entered into an arrangement with billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. This would see the creation of Virgin Galactic and eventually The Spaceship Company.
The findings in this investigative report highlight concerns that have been raised regarding the manner in which a number of the commercial start-up companies conduct their business.