Virgin Galactic Pilot Explains How He Survived, What Caused SpaceShipTwo Crash

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The surviving pilot from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crash last month told investigators in a Wednesday National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that his seat was thrown from the craft as it broke up, allowing him to deploy his parachute and survive the disaster that claimed the life of his co-pilot.

Forty-three-year-old Peter Siebold was still 9 miles above the ground traveling at more than 600 m.p.h. after SpaceShipTwo broke up 27 seconds after detaching from its carrier aircraft, The Guardian reports. At some point during his fall the pilot managed to unbuckle himself from his seat, which triggered the automatic deployment of his parachute. Siebold was released from the hospital Monday.

Siebold said he was unaware at the time of the disaster that his co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, had unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feathering system after the ship fired its rocket engine and accelerated to Mach 1.02. The feathering system rotates the craft’s wings into a feather-like configuration to achieve atmospheric drag during re-entry, reducing increased temperatures caused by atmospheric friction and controlling the craft’s descent.

The feathering system deployed while SpaceShipTwo was still in a powered ascent, causing the craft to tear itself apart. On-board video confirmed Siebold’s account and showed Alsbury unlocking the system prematurely (the system isn’t supposed to be unlocked until the craft hits Mach 1.4). Though the switch to actually deploy the system was never flipped, the force of the air hitting the craft during its ascent likely pushed the wings into feathering position.

NTSB’s full investigation could take a year or longer to wrap up.

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Giuseppe Macri