Peter Siebold, the pilot who survived SpaceShipTwo’s tragic accident two weeks back, is amazingly out of the hospital already, and his chilling recount of the crash is particularly harrowing. The spacecraft was part of a test flight for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism promise, which has been taking reservations for commercial space flight for some time now. The prospects, however, are looking grim as Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, and investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) try and piece together what caused the fatal event.
Nine miles above Earth, Siebold said he remembers being ejected into the thinning atmosphere as the spacecraft burned up around him. Pilots who fly at that altitude typically wear pressurized space suits for safety—temperatures at that altitude are about minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit—but Siebold was wearing no such suit. As he was ejected, he would have been traveling at speeds of more than 600 mph. Remember Felix Baumgartner and Google’s insane engineer? Imagine that (just not nearly as high), but without the proper equipment. Without oxygen, a person would become unconscious within seconds.
Siebold said he unbuckled himself from his seat “at some point” before his parachute opened—his survival is understandably being considered “extremely remarkable” after being exposed to such a harsh environment, let alone being inside an exploding spacecraft traveling at unimaginable speeds. Before passing out, Siebold said he last remembered water boiling on his tongue—water at such a high altitude boils at lower temperatures because of the decreased pressure.
So far the investigation has pointed to a pilot error that lead to the crash. The other pilot (acting as Siebold’s co-pilot for the mission), Michael Alsbury, apparently unlocked a braking system, known as “feather,” too soon. The feather system is designed to let the craft fly stable with its belly to the wind, kind of like how a leaf naturally falls from a tree. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet, though Siebold’s account is consistent with data that suggests Alsbury launched the system before it was safe, according to the NTSB.
The wreckage has already been recovered, and the on-site investigation has concluded; the investigation itself is still ongoing to determine exactly how SpaceShipTwo crashed.