The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has given its final on-site press conference regarding the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. As we mentioned in our last update, the NTSB states that cockpit video shows that the co-pilot who died in the crash, Michael Alsbury, prematurely unlocked the movable tail sections called “feathers,” which then moved, just before the ship broke apart. The NTSB points out that this is a statement of facts known to-date, not a determination of cause; we don’t know why Alsbury unlocked the feathers when he did, or whether there may have been additional factors contributing the catastrophic break-up of SpaceShipTwo. The NTSB says that they have now located debris from the crash 35 miles away from the primary crash site.
The surviving pilot, Peter Siebold was released from the hospital on Monday evening, and the investigation team will be able to interview him soon. Test pilots are a tough lot, and clearly, Siebold is no exception. When SpaceShipTwo broke up, both pilots were tossed into (extremely) thin air, at the speed of sound, about 10 miles above the Earth. The temperature was about -70F, and they had no space suits; they wear flight suits.
Paul Tackabury, a veteran test pilot and former board member of Scaled Composites, explained that the decision against having the pilots wear space suits was made early in the development of the program by Burt Rutan. Rutan’s reasoning was that cutting hatches big enough to accommodate space-suit-clad pilots would compromise the strength of the ship’s composite-fiber body.
On Siebold’s incredible survival, Tackabury commented, “The fact that he survived a descent of 50,000 feet is pretty amazing. You don’t just jump out of aircraft at Mach 1 at over 50,000 feet without a spacesuit.”
Siebold is the director of flight operations at Scaled Composites. He got his pilot’s license at age 16, earned a Bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), and has worked as a design engineer and test pilot at Scaled Composites since 1996. He was responsible for the simulator, navigation system, and ground control system for the SpaceShipOne, and he flew SpaceShipOne and piloted WhiteKnightTwo on its maiden voyage in 2008.
In their latest statement, Virgin Galactic addresses some media accusations that started popping up the day of the crash, before anything was known about the cause. They said things like, “A brave test pilot is dead and another one critically injured—in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride,” and “Enough with Amateur Hour Space Flight.” [Editor’s note: We’ve made a conscious choice not to cite or link to these sources. Krypton Radio does not want to contribute traffic to such unprofessional and disrespectful content]
The statement says, “At Virgin Galactic, safety is our guiding principle and the North Star for all programmatic decisions. Our culture is one of prioritizing safety as the most important factor in every element of our work, and any suggestions to the contrary are untrue. We are committed to learning from this incident and ensuring something like this can never happen again. To that end, we will work closely with the NTSB and will focus intense effort on its findings and guidance …
“Testing programs, reaching back to early aviation, have distinct risks, and our customers know that we will not move ahead with commercialized space travel until our expert engineers and pilots deem the program to be safe. These are among the brightest and most experienced professionals in the industry and our success has and will continue to be ensured by their expertise.
“While this has been a tragic setback, we are moving forward and will do so deliberately and with determination. We are continuing to build the second SpaceShipTwo (serial number two), which is currently about 65% complete and we will continue to advance our mission over the coming weeks and months. With the guidance of the NTSB and the assurance of a safe path forward, we intend to move ahead with our testing program and have not lost sight of our mission to make space accessible for all. We owe it to all of those who have risked and given so much to stay the course and deliver on the promise of creating the first commercial spaceline.”
Richard Branson re-affirmed that he plans to be on the first space flight of SpaceShipTwo, serial number two.