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Explosion at Scaled Composites Kills 2, Injures 4 239

Animats writes "Details are scant at this time, but a explosion at the Scaled Composites rocket test facility has killed two people and seriously injured four more. The Los Angeles Times reports that the explosion was 'ignited by a tank of nitrous oxide.' This is Burt Rutan's facility, and the home of SpaceShip One and Virgin Galactic spacecraft development."
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Explosion at Scaled Composites Kills 2, Injures 4

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  • First and foremost (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:31PM (#20005965)
    Condolences to their families and loved ones...
  • CNN (Score:3, Informative)

    by Lithgon ( 896737 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:33PM (#20005977)
    CNN is also reporting on this story: ndex.html []
  • Oh, damn! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JimDaGeek ( 983925 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:35PM (#20005987)
    My prayers are with the lost and their loved ones. What a shame. There are two gone, but 4 are still with us, though in really bad shape. So... send your prayers, positive vibes, your "mojo", or your voodoo. It doesn't matter now. These people are working hard to help push our knowledge as humans further. So we should stand by them and do what little we can.
    • May the two that died rest in peace and a speedy and complete recovery for the five injured.

      To all of them and the rest of the Scaled crew: Thank you for continually innovating and pushing the envelope of our human capabilities.
    • According to the article, two were killed on-site, and a further died in hospital, post-surgery.

      I tend to think these guys are heroes -- much more so, as people trying to innovate and expand our potential, than, say, those who go to iraq to fight other human beings, and find themselves strangely fought back against in the process. However, the article also says that Scaled Composites undertakes projects for the military, which muddies their heroism somewhat.
  • by sokoban ( 142301 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:35PM (#20005991) Homepage
    The article's a little light on details, but explosive failure is pretty rare for hybrid rocket motors such as this, isn't it?

    Usually mis-ignition will just cause rapid release of the N2O oxidizer, and designs are such that a clogged nozzle which would actually cause an explosion generally causes a safety valve to open and vent the excess pressure.

    Yeah, everything I've seen on hybrid motors says they are non-explosive with a near zero TNT rating.
    • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:44PM (#20006047)

      They weren't firing the motor; apparently this was some sort of handling accident. Which also explains why people were close enough to be hurt. Why the fireball, I don't know. Also, nothing actually *detonated* here -- just a big fireball and modest overpressure. (At least, that's what informed commentary on the pictures I've seen says.)

      It's also worth noting that given sufficient provocation, it is entirely possible for N2O to detonate by itself -- it's an energetic compound. It's just fairly non-reactive under most conditions, and even if it does start decomposing in a self-sustaining fashion it doesn't normally detonate. But it can, and if you have enough of it you don't even need a detonation to kill people.

      • by afidel ( 530433 )
        I don't know, modest overpressure isn't going to crumple a shipping container like the one that was near the explosion.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I didn't see any fireball. Just a large explosion... A black cloud with lots of brown dust mixed in, shooting 3-400 feet into the air... Mostly straight up with one very large piece flying off to the south-southwest followed quickly by a loud BOOM (I was about 1/2 mile away at the time so the sound and pressure wave were a bit delayed) but it most certainly was a "detonation".
  • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:39PM (#20006013)

    I've been chasing news articles for a little while now.

    Details are very scarce, but apparently this was a cold-flow test -- they weren't intending to light the motor, just flow nitrous through it. Tank ruptured, and a big fireball. Evidence visible from pictures etc suggests nothing detonated. Apparently people a couple miles away at the airport proper didn't hear an explosion -- they just saw clouds of dust and smoke, not abnormal for a motor test. I haven't seen anything about causes etc.

    My condolences to the families.

    • by Thagg ( 9904 ) <> on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:47PM (#20006065) Journal
      My condolences as well. I know that Rutan has done everything he could think of in the design to prevent any kind of explosion, and the purposely doesn't light the rocket until they're 10 miles away from almost everybody, just in case something unexpected does happen.

      Among the safety innovations of this rocket is that a single fiber optic cable is wound around and around the tank, so that if it ruptures anyplace it will cut the cable, and the rocket will be shut down immediately.

      That said, in a cold-flow test, there shouldn't be anything burning.

      I am sure that Burt and Richard Branson are terribly distressed by this. My deepest sympathies go out to the families of the killed and injured.

      Thad Beier
      • by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Friday July 27, 2007 @02:53AM (#20007065)

        Among the safety innovations of this rocket is that a single fiber optic cable is wound around and around the tank, so that if it ruptures anyplace it will cut the cable, and the rocket will be shut down immediately.

        Actually, this is standard in a lot of rocketry situations. On the space shuttle, the electrical wire that controls the hydrazine valve to the thruster is wrapped around the thruster bell. If something goes wrong, and the bell fails, it will cut power to the control valve, causing it to close, and thus shutting down the thruster.

        This is the basic principle of "Fail Safe" design. To me, the problem with the fiber optic cable is that the fiber cable is just a data control. It would be better if they wrapped the power line around it, so that a failure would cut the power, and thus cause it to go safe.
      • by Detritus ( 11846 )
        Many rockets have a break-wire that runs the length of the rocket. Its used to detect structural failure and to trigger the thrust termination system.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by PhotoGuy ( 189467 )
      Details are very scarce, but apparently this was a cold-flow test -- they weren't intending to light the motor, just flow nitrous through it. Tank ruptured, and a big fireball. Evidence visible from pictures etc suggests nothing detonated.

      I did well in high school physics, but there is one thing I think I read/learned awhile back, and wonder if someone can confirm it, and its relevance to this event (if the parent poster quoted above is correct).

      The thing is this: that things can explode simply through ra
      • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Friday July 27, 2007 @12:27AM (#20006333)

        In non-technical usage, explosion can refer to a detonation or a deflagration. The distinguishing feature is a detonation has a supersonic reaction front, a deflagration is subsonic.

        A pressure vessel rupture is an explosion for most purposes in terms of the results; ditto a deflagration. This appears to have been a deflagration -- damage is too light for a mass detonation on that scale.

        Damage from explosions can come both from the overpressure, heat, flame, etc caused by the combustion, and also from the shock wave of a detonation. The shock wave will shatter hardened structures, the overpressure "just" moves things around. Also, with a detonation, the pressure rise time is *much* faster, and the overpressure can be *much* higher, so a comparable mass of substance will do much more damage if it detonates rather than deflagrates.

        Nitroglycerin doesn't "ignite" in that there isn't a "flame", but the reaction that occurs is a combustion reaction -- the complex molecule ends up as a mix of N2, H2O, CO2, CO, etc. That reaction propagates at supersonic speeds. Interestingly, it will burn quietly if lit -- there's no pressure wave, just thermally-induced decomposition, and it won't transition on its own.

        • by georgewilliamherbert ( 211790 ) on Friday July 27, 2007 @04:31AM (#20007505)
          I started an accident reconstruction as soon as pictures started to come out... I'm in the industry and I want to figure out what went wrong. As far as I can tell, a pressure vessel rupture explains all of what we see here.

          It just looks like that one tank trailer fell over, but in fact it has to have rolled over 270 degrees to be where it's lying now. Also, the container just past it was both hit really hard in the side by expanding gas, and knocked over.

          But there's no massive fragmentation damage or burn mark anywhere to be seen.

          What is instructive however, is that there's something missing, and something else tipped over. The other thing tipped over is the test stand itself, which is a large blue steel truss structure, which is now about 10 feet away from where it started and lying on its side.

          What's missing, is a large (roughly 7 foot diameter and 10 foot long) composite "flight tank" which would hold the nitrous oxide for the motor during a test or flight, and any sign of the injector or a chamber assembly. They're just out and out gone.

          The missing tank, test stand knocked over, lack of fire or fragmentation damage seems to indicate that nothing burned much if at all, and nothing detonated. This has all the hallmarks of a large pressure vessel explosion.

          I for one am going to try to attend the memorial service.
  • shame (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gadzook33 ( 740455 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:42PM (#20006033)
    Besides the obvious tragedy of human loss, I hope this doesn't also sway them from continuing. With NASA spending money on colonizing the moon, guys like this may be our only chance for the future of interesting and pioneering science.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Riverman5 ( 1018024 )
      Uh, space tourism is pretty much all they got. Count on NASA, or maybe ESA.
      • Well, Virgin is looking at space tourism but really the technology these companies are pioneering is the key. The whole point of scaled composites is that they craft an entire aircraft on a CNC machine. Pretty impressive stuff if you ask me. This, along with other cheep launch vehicles, etc could help reinvigorate space travel. What's NASA working on? - A moon base - Building a space station - Supporting the space shuttle with pointless missions - Taking pictures of deep space With the possible except
    • Three people dead, others injured, out of a small team. A proper test (testFLIGHT?) was due in a few days. Seems to me that this will definitely set things back, even if they don't take time to grieve, which I'm sure they will.

      What I'd love to know is... what are the other competing projects right now, and how ruthless are they?
  • Complacentcy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sorn ( 1101727 ) on Thursday July 26, 2007 @11:50PM (#20006087)
    I work with munitions both guided and unguided with the AF, General Purpose Bombs and Guided Missiles, More then likely just complacentcy was the factor, hardly ever is there an accident with explosives that takes place that doesn't involve that factor. This day and age explosives are not as fragile as Nitro once was, it takes a hell of alot to set them off. Even with the solid rocket motors of the missiles the tech data states that a spark of static electricity could set them off however after working with them long enough you learn to respect the potential there but also know what you can and can not do with them. But in the end they will find a scapegoat and blame it on someone or a group of people to help keep the heat off themselves.
  • A moment of silence for these lost explorers, and deepest hopes that the survivors of this accident recover to see space!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 27, 2007 @12:04AM (#20006193)
    The Scaled Composites website says they are "NOW HIRING!" []
  • It Happens (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Friday July 27, 2007 @12:39AM (#20006399) Journal
    Those people were professionals. They knew what they were doing and they knew the risks. That's not to be cold hearted, but the opposite. They did their jobs despite the risks and suffered for it. That's the price of pioneering. They're not heroes for suffering, they were heroes before, for living and working on the edge. Heroes will replace them. Some of those will get hurt, and so on.

    The first thing that occurred to me was whether Rutan was there. He wasn't, but he could have been. It's his way to keep his hands in things. That would have been an enormous loss to aero- and space development. He's one of the all time geniuses of all things flyable. Any really good aerospace engineer could write a definitive book on composite construction. It took genius to do so in 28 pages. It'd be damn hard for Scaled to go on without him, even with Northrup buying them out.

    The second that occurred to me was that it'll put a damper on hybrid motor development and use. The motors are much safer than solid or liquid, but the handling equipment isn't safe by any stretch. Amateur rocketry has been using them for years, but nobody is willing to break the high-power certification barrier and make them available to low and mid-power rockters due to the liability factor from the ground equipment. It may come to nothing more than headlines for the media and PR for some politicians, but I expect a call for the FAA's Office of Space Transportation to rethink certifying of hybrid powered human rated craft.
    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      I hope they knew what they were doing, and I hope that all precautions had been taken. In any case we are going to see more of this as rocketry moves into the commercial sector and more people gain experience with the materials.

      But even with experience, and until we get more I think it will get worse before it gets better, there will still be accidents. It is important to have perspective. There were three people injured in Dallas just yesterday in gas explosion. Last year several people were injured

  • High-pressure gas cylinders are to be respected. []
  • Please, Burt (Score:4, Insightful)

    by freeweed ( 309734 ) on Friday July 27, 2007 @01:17AM (#20006605)
    Don't stop.
    • Somebody mod this insightful. Please Burt, despite the loss of some valuable employees, despite the buyout, no matter what, don't stop. Some of us are counting on you. This needs to continue. At all costs, with blessings to those that have suffered those costs.
  • Not unexpected (Score:5, Insightful)

    by macemoneta ( 154740 ) on Friday July 27, 2007 @01:23AM (#20006643) Homepage
    This is very sad, but not unexpected. Every major construction project will have an estimated number deaths associated with it before it starts. Every skyscraper, every bridge, every tunnel, every road through bad terrain, and yes, every space mission.

    Most people (other than the safety engineers and insurance folks) rarely stop and think about what it costs in human lives to move forward. But there is a cost.

    In a perfect world it would never happen, but we are imperfect and it will always happen. People make mistakes. Equipment malfunctions. Bad weather. Mislabeled products. Acts of nature.

    The people that do this work benefit their species; a true higher calling. Take a moment to think about their sacrifice and thank them.
  • Some of the articles say that one Glenn May was killed. I wonder if this was him? []
  • In respect to those who lost their lives, I'm going to watch The Right Stuff [] this weekend along with the SpaceShipOne [] DVD from The Discovery Channel.
  • I see that some people don't know much about Burt Rutan and his goals and how he hopes to accomplish them. This talk should clear that up. If you think a government space program has any chance of accomplishing anything, then you should watch this video and get a bit wiser. []

    This accident is a miserable development. Rutan is working very hard to provide us with that slice of 'west' the world hasn't had since California was settled. I hope this doesn't set back that
    • He gave nearly the same presentation at the AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference two years ago now. It was a good talk, over all. However, he is a bit of a dreamer. I'm not saying that is completely a bad thing. But if you believe for one second that SpaceShipOne can be scaled up to an orbital vehicle - something he implied in his presentation - I have oceanfront property in Arizona you might be interested in. Nice bridge, too ...

      He is right that the little guys have their chance at space - look at Armadillo

Were there fewer fools, knaves would starve. - Anonymous