SpaceShipTwo pilots named as crash investigation begins

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The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has begun an investigation into the crash of SpaceShipTwo (Image: NTSB)

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The pilots of the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane that crashed during a test flight on Friday have been identified. Meanwhile, Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press conference on Saturday evening, where he provided details of the ongoing accident investigation.

In a press release, Scaled Composites (pdf), the builder of the vehicle, named the deceased crew member as co-pilot Michael Alsbury. The survivor is Director of Flight Operations at Scaled Composites Peter Siebold, who was piloting the spacecraft and is in hospital with severe injuries, though doctors say he is awake and alert.

Taking questions from the media, Hart said the the NTSB is conducting interviews with flight test staff and witnesses, though Siebold will not be questioned until doctors permit it. So far, no cause of the crash has been determined.

The crew of SpaceShipTwo were identified as pilot Peter Siebold (left) and co-pilot Michael Alsbury (image: Scaled Composites)

According to Hart, the FBI has aided the investigation by documenting the scene, so the debris can be removed quickly. He said that this was particularly important for one area of the crash site because a railway line needed to be reopened. Hart says that the wreckage from SpaceShipTwo is scattered across five miles (8 km) of the Mojave desert from northeast to southwest, and that the tailbooms, fuselage, fuel, methane and nitrous oxide tanks, cockpit, and engine have been recovered.

Despite this progress, many basic facts remain unknown. For example, while Alsbury was found inside the spacecraft, Investigators do not know how Siebold got out or how his parachute deployed. However, it is known from the debris spread that SpaceShipTwo broke up in the air.

Hart says that since this was a test flight, there will be a great deal of information to work with. The vehicle carried six cameras, a range camera was trained on it from Edwards Air Force Base, chase aircraft recorded video, and there are over 1,000 parameters of telemetry data.

The site investigation is scheduled to take four to seven days, followed by off site investigations and a year of analysis. In the meantime, Virgin Galactic is free to resume all operations, though the NTSB will provide recommendations.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said, "The hardest part of the tragic accident is the loss of one of SpaceShipTwo’s brave test pilots, Michael Alsbury. Someone asked if I knew him. Sadly, I did not know him – because he worked for Scaled Composites – but I had had the privilege of shaking his hand briefly after he’d co-piloted SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight and on that exciting morning in Mojave I had congratulated him on the achievement."

Some employees of Scaled Composites have also launched a gofundme campaign to raise money to help out Mike Alsbury's family, which can be found here.

The video below is of the first NTSB press conference on Saturday.

Update 2/11/2014: Without stating a cause of the crash, the NTSB now says that SpaceShipTwo's engine fired normally, but that the tailbooms unlocked while the ship was traveling at Mach 1.

Source: NTSB

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