The Incredible Journey of SpaceShip2 Pilot from 50,000 ft above the Earth

The dramatic failure of a test flight by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket last October cost the co-pilot his life and left the pilot severely injured. New data from investigators suggest that the pilot survived in part because the craft essentially came apart around him.

Pilot Peter Siebold told the National Transportation Safety Board that when the flight went wrong, he heard a loud bang, and then what sounded like “paper fluttering in the wind” — believed to be the sound of the spaceship’s cabin disintegrating.

The next thing he can recall, Siebold told federal investigators, was finding himself in a free fall, miles above Earth’s surface. He was in a roughly stable position — not tumbling. But to see the planet’s horizon, he had to look up, because he was facing downward toward a vast desert landscape.

SpaceShipTwo broke apart soon after it reached supersonic speeds and an altitude of around 50,000 feet, the result of a series of events that officials blame on human error. Its debris was scattered over a 5-mile area near California’s Koehn Dry Lake, in a setback to Virgin Galactic’s plans for space tourism.

“During the breakup sequence, [Siebold] was thrown from the vehicle while still restrained in his seat,” investigator Lorenda Ward said as the NTSB presented its findings Tuesday. “During his descent to the ground, the pilot released himself from his seat, and his parachute deployed automatically.”

Siebold, who reported having lapses of consciousness or memory during his plummet to the ground, described the parachute’s opening as “gentlemanly … it was not harsh.”

The test flight on Oct. 31, 2014, was run by Scaled Composites, on behalf of Virgin Galactic. Announcing the results of its inquiry into the accident Tuesday, the NTSB said that human error, on the part of co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, led to the craft breaking apart.

“The NTSB concluded the co-pilot pulled a lever too early, unlocking the tail of the rocket-propelled plane and causing it to break apart,” NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel reports. “But investigators also found the pilots were under pressure to carry out commands in a matter of seconds while rocketing into space.”

The NTSB also said the co-pilot had recently been given more tasks to complete during the flight, and it recommended that more be done to reduce the possibility of human error in similar flights.

Siebold’s survival was seen as something of a miracle. And new details from the NTSB only support that idea. The agency released Siebold’s version of what happened, summarizing an interview it conducted with him that touches on everything from his normal pre-flight routine to what he could recall about an accident that he somehow survived.

We’re going to publish part of that summary below. First, we’ll remind you that the pilot’s injuries included four fractures to his right arm; a dislocated shoulder; a fractured right clavicle; and a fractured little toe, on his left foot. Siebold also had bruises on his face, chest and legs, along with a bloody gash in his right elbow. And because he was lacking a visor, at least two pieces of debris lodged in his eyes and his corneas were scratched. His eyesight “improved quickly almost immediately” after those problems were addressed, according to the report.

From the interview summary that was released Tuesday:

“The next thing he remembered was a ‘sudden jolt’ when the parachute opened and feeling as though he had been asleep. He did not pull the D-ring for the rip cord and believed the CYPRES device had activated the parachute. He described the parachute opening as ‘gentlemanly… it was not harsh.’ It was difficult to estimate the altitude but he estimated it was somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, noticeably lower than his previous period of consciousness. He looked up and checked on the canopy to ensure it was properly deployed. His eyesight was ‘degraded’ and events began to ‘slow down’ in his mind allowing him to absorb more information. He again recalled attempting to activate the oxygen but was unsure at what point in he made the attempts. It was either during one or both periods of consciousness. He tried ‘many, many, many times’ and ‘just got the feeling’ that it was not working and he never got oxygen flow. He also stated that he ‘didn’t know what to expect or what it should feel like… it just didn’t feel like it did anything.’ When asked if he used one or two hands he stated that he only used one hand – his left. He further stated that ‘you can’t really do anything with your right hand with the oxygen. It’s not a very convenient angle so I would assess it as a one hand operation.’ When asked if he could see what he was pulling on he stated that he could not recall.

“The chase airplane began to circle him and he became aware that he had sustained injuries. His eyes hurt and it was very bright and difficult to see. He could not raise his right arm and assumed it was dislocated. He was concerned about the parachute landing fall and did not want to reinjure a previous left foot injury he had sustained years earlier. He wanted to reach the risers to position himself into the right attitude for a proper landing. He manipulated his right arm several times in an attempt to resolve the dislocation but he was not successful. He was running out of time and made the decision to put his hands at his sides with his feet and bent knees together. Between about 5,000 and 2,000 feet he noticed a very high ground speed and became concerned about landing and being dragged through the desert, but by the time of touchdown the surface winds were calm. He descended in a very slow spiral with no noticeable ground track.

“Upon touchdown, he could not roll to one side because of a lack of directional control and fell forward into a creosote bush.

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