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The crash of Virgin Galactic’s prototype commercial tourism spacecraft last fall killed one pilot, and now a dramatic photo has come to light showing how the second pilot survived. The photo shows Pete Siebold parachuting to Earth after SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair. Siebold was ejected while still strapped to his seat; he managed to undo the harness, and his parachute deployed automatically at about 14,000 feet, as it was designed to do.
The photo was taken by veteran photojournalist Mark Greenberg, who was working for Virgin Galactic. "The thing that went through my mind was the suspension of disbelief, and that occurred right when I could tell there was trouble," Greenberg told NBC News in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Greenberg was in an Extra 300 chase plane piloted by former NASA space shuttle commander Rick "CJ" Sturckow. He estimates the chase plane was between 8,000 and 9,000 feet up in the air and in the midst of a 4G turn when he captured the dramatic shot.
The photo appears to show Siebold with an arm raised as he parachute-glides back to Earth.
"He raised his arm to say 'I'm OK,' which was radioed back to base," Greenberg said.
Siebold suffered serious injuries and later said it was a miracle he made it out alive. Killed in the Oct. 31 midair accident over California’s Mojave Desert was pilot Mike Alsbury, 39. The flight test was carried out by Virgin Galactic’s contractor, Scaled Composites.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday announced that an investigation determined the crash occurred after Alsbury prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo's "feathering mechanism,” which slows and stabilizes the suborbital spacecraft during its descent. The NTSB also cited inadequate safety measures, saying the accident might have been prevented with better training and technical safeguards.
Greenberg’s photo was featured in a blog post Tuesday by Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson on the future of the company's commercial spaceflight program in the aftermath of the tragedy.
"Every new transformative technology requires risk, and we have seen the tragic and brave sacrifice of Mike and the recovery of injured surviving pilot Pete Siebold," Branson wrote. "Their tremendous efforts are not in vain and will serve to strengthen our resolve to make big dreams come true."