Virgin Galactic Pilot Describes Free Fall After Spaceship Disintegrated

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The pilot of a Virgin Galactic spaceship that disintegrated midflight recalls trying in vain to activate oxygen to help him breathe as he fell toward the California desert.

Federal accident investigators on Tuesday released a summary of their interview with Peter Siebold, who survived when SpaceShipTwo ripped to pieces during an October test mission.

The mission was part of nascent efforts to create a space tourism industry.

Siebold says he recalls the violent breakup of the craft before he blacked out. When he awoke, he tried to get his emergency oxygen flowing. He next remembered the jolt of his parachute automatically opening.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded during a hearing that SpaceShipTwo broke apart after Siebold's co-pilot prematurely unlocked its brakes as the craft was shooting toward space.

The feather system, which was designed to pivot the tailboom structures upward to slow the vehicle during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, was to be unlocked during the boost phase of flight at a speed of 1.4 Mach. The copilot unlocked the feather at 0.8 Mach; once unlocked, the loads imposed on the feather were sufficient to overcome the feather actuators, allowing the feather to deploy uncommanded, which resulted in the breakup of the vehicle.
The Board found that Scaled Composites failed to consider the possibility that a test pilot could unlock the feather early or that this single-point human error could cause the feather to deploy uncommanded...
“Manned commercial spaceflight is a new frontier, with many unknown risks and hazards,” Hart said. “In such an environment, safety margins around known hazards must be rigorously established and, where possible, expanded.”