Federal investigators say Virgin Galactic's experimental rocket ship broke apart in flight after a device to slow the space plane's descent deployed too soon.
The cause of Friday's crash of SpaceShipTwo over California's Mojave Desert has not been determined, but investigators found the "feathering" system - which rotates the twin tail "feathers" to create drag - was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed, National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said.
The system requires a two-step process to deploy. The co-pilot unlocked the system, but Hart said the second step occurred "without being commanded."
"What we know is that after it was unlocked, the feathers moved into the deploy position, and two seconds later, we saw disintegration," Hart said.
The finding moves away from initial speculation that an explosion brought down the craft.
The investigation is months from being completed, and officials are looking at factors that include pilot error, mechanical failure, design problems and whether pressure existed to continue testing, Hart said.
"We are not edging toward anything. We're not ruling anything out," he said. "We are looking at all these issues to determine the root cause of this accident."
The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash. Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted to the ground and is hospitalized with injuries.
Speaking on NBC's Today Show Richard Branson said if the initial findings are the cause of the crash, then it could be an easy fix with a return to test flights within four to six months. Branson said normalizing space travel is "absolutely worth the risk" because of myriad benefits it could have for humankind.
The crash is reminder of the risks entailed in spaceflight innovation. Knowing that, how will this accident affect Virgin Galactic’s goals? What is the reaction of investors who are eager to use their prepaid tickets? How are other companies faring in the business of suborbital commercial flight?
With files from the Associated Press.
Douglas Messier, Managing Editor, ParabolicArc.com - a journalism outlet focused on private space enterprise in Mojave, California; Messier witnessed Friday’s crash
Doug Griffith, Aviation and Spaceflight Attorney; Griffith has a degree in aerospace engineering and two decades as a military and civilian pilot