NTSB Says SS2 Debris Field Indicates In-Flight Breakup, Scaled Identifies Pilots

NTSB Says SS2 Debris Field Indicates In-Flight Breakup, Scaled Identifies Pilots

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said tonight that the wreckage from the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash yesterday is spread over 5 miles and that indicates an in-flight breakup.  Earlier today, Scaled Composites identified the two SS2 pilots:  Michael Alsbury, who perished, and Peter Siebold, who is hospitalized.

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart provided a brief recap of the first day of the NTSB investigation at an 8:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) press conference (11:00 pm EDT).   This was the second NTSB briefing of the day, the first one having been held at 9:00 am PDT.  Another NTSB briefing will be held tomorrow.

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson also held a news conference earlier today.

SS2 crashed shortly after 10:00 am PDT yesterday (October 31).  The reusable spaceplane separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft as expected after reaching approximately 45,000 feet, but something happened shortly thereafter that caused it to crash to Earth.

Hart said that one decision made today was who would be parties to the investigation.  NTSB has the lead, and the FAA. Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic are participants.  SS2 was owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and built by Scaled.   The two pilots were Scaled employees.

Scaled said in a press release that Siebold was the SS2 pilot and Alsbury the copilot.  Alsbury died at the scene.  Siebold, who is director of Flight Operations for Scaled,  is “alert and talking with his family and doctors,” the company reported.

Hart was asked at the press conference why one of the pilots was able to eject and the other did not.   Hart replied that it is not clear how the surviving pilot got out the plane.   One parachute was found at the crash site, and the other was not deployed, he said, but there is not enough information yet to determine exactly what happened.   The NTSB has not interviewed Siebold, the survivor, on the recommendation of his doctors.

When asked if the NTSB has any findings that could affect the short-term future of the program, Hart stressed that the NTSB is investigating this accident and it does not prevent the operator from doing anything.  It is “completely up to the operator” as to what to do in the short term.  The accident investigation will determine the cause of the accident and make recommendations to avoid another occurrence, he said.

A lot of data and information will be available to investigators, he added.  SS2 had six cameras, WhiteKnightTwo had three, a range camera at nearby Edwards Air Force Base was used, a chase airplane had video and radar, and telemetry with over 1,000 parameters is available.  It will take some time to comb through all of that data, he said, stressing that he was not complaining, that having so much data is a good thing.

The debris is spread over a 5 mile area from northeast to southwest, which indicates an in-flight breakup, he said.  The left and right tail booms fell in the northeast corner, then the fuselage with oxidizer and fuel tanks, then the cockpit, and then the engine itself.  Investigators looked at the fuel tanks today, but not the engine.

He said investigators likely would be on-scene for 4-7 days.  That will be followed by a period for collecting facts off-scene and then analysis, with the entire investigation taking about 12 months.

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