NTSB: Pilot Thrown From Exploding Spaceship

Peter Siebold didn't know co-pilot had activated feather braking system
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 12, 2014 12:18 PM CST
NTSB: Pilot Thrown From Exploding Spaceship
In this Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, file photo, wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif.   (Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The surviving pilot of the Virgin Galactic spaceship that tore apart over the Mojave Desert was thrown clear of the disintegrating craft and did not know his co-pilot had prematurely unlocked the re-entry braking system, federal investigators said today. In its update on the still-evolving investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board did not provide any details on what caused SpaceShipTwo to crash Oct. 31 in Southern California. The NTSB previously said the ship broke apart a few seconds after the co-pilot unlocked the braking system. Pilot Peter Siebold told investigators Friday that he was pulled from the vehicle when it disintegrated. He said he unbuckled from his seat at some point during his fall and his parachute deployed automatically.

While the full investigation could take up to a year to complete, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart identified the vehicle's unique "feather" braking system as a possible culprit. The craft is designed to shift its shape as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere. The twin tails, or feathers, tilt upright to create drag as the vehicle plummets to Earth. Engaging the feathering system is a two-step process. A pilot must first unlock the system and then a lever must be pulled to activate the feathers. The feathers aren't supposed to be unlocked until the craft reaches Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000mph. However, co-pilot Mike Alsbury could be seen on inflight video unlocking the system before the vehicle reached Mach 1.0. The NTSB also said today that it is reviewing safety documentation and the design of the feather system. (More SpaceShipTwo stories.)

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