Investigators are trying to figure out how Virgin Galactic’s pilot, Pete Siebold, managed to parachute to safety from about 50,000 feet without a pressure suit or oxygen mask and survive with only a shoulder injury.

Investigators are still trying to understand how Siebold, who they have not interviewed, managed to escape from the cockpit of the spacecraft, which was moving at Mach 1 (the speed of sound), when it broke up over California Friday. The crash killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39.

AP Photo/Scaled CompositesIn this undated photo released Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, by Scaled Composites, shows Peter Siebold, the Director of Flight Operations at Scaled Composites. Siebold was piloting SpaceShipTwo on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, when it exploded in flight.
Acting National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart said Siebold did not get out through the escape hatch.

“We know it wasn’t through there, so how did this pilot get out?” he said earlier this week.

Some employees of Scaled Composite, the company testing Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Washington Post.

“[They are] calling Siebold’s survival miraculous, and they describe his escape like something out of a movie script. According to sources, Siebold found himself flying through the air while still attached to his ejection seat. When he spotted the chase plane, he managed to give the pilot inside a thumb’s up, and then unbuckled himself at about 17,000 feet, deploying his parachute. He landed under his own power and suffered a shoulder injury from the force of the parachute that required minor surgery.”

The rocket ship broke up after a device to slow the space plane’s descent deployed too soon, federal investigators said.

The cause of Friday’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo 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.

AP Photo/Scaled CompositesIn this undated photo released Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, by Scaled Composites, shows Michael Alsbury, who was killed while co-piloting the test flight of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.
“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.”

Virgin Galactic — owned by billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — plans to fly up to six passengers at a time more than 62 miles above Earth, where they can experience weightlessness. The company sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000.

Branson told Sky News on Monday that the company will move forward despite the crash. He said there would be a “whole massive series of test flights” before any trips are made.

He still plans to be on the maiden voyage, with his family.

“We need to be absolutely certain our spaceship has been thoroughly tested — and that it will be — and once it’s thoroughly tested, and we can go to space, we will go to space,” Branson said.

“We must push on. There are incredible things that can happen through mankind being able to explore space properly,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo tore apart Friday about 11 seconds after it detached from the underside of its jet-powered mother ship and fired its rocket engine for the test flight. Initial speculation was that an explosion occurred, but the fuel and oxidizer tanks and rocket engine showed no sign of being burned or breached, the NTSB said.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty ImagesSheriff's deputies inspect the wreckage of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo in a desert field Sunday north of Mojave, California.
The feathering system is a feature unique to the craft to help it slow as it re-enters the atmosphere. After being unlocked, a lever must be pulled to rotate the twin feathers toward a nearly vertical position to act as a brake. After decelerating, the pilots reconfigure the feathers to their normal position so the craft can glide to Earth.

A review of footage from a camera mounted to the ceiling of the spaceship’s cockpit showed the co-pilot moving the feathering lever to the unlock position, Hart said.

The feathers activated at Mach 1.0, the speed of sound, or 760 mph, Hart said. They should not have deployed until the craft had reached a speed of at least Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000 mph.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty ImagesDebris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field Sunday north of Mojave, California.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides issued a statement Sunday to tamp down on conjecture about the cause of the crash.

“Now is the time to focus on all those affected by this tragic accident and to work with the experts at the NTSB, to get to the bottom of what happened on that tragic day, and to learn from it so that we can move forward safely with this important mission,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development for years and has seen setbacks. In 2007, an explosion killed three people and critically injured three others during a ground test in the development of a rocket engine.



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