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Investigators are certain that the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that suffered a problem during a test flight and crashed Friday broke up in mid-air, but a complete analysis could take 12 months, the National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday night.
There are many things that investigators don’t yet know: What caused SpaceShipTwo to break apart Friday; why one pilot was able to deploy a parachute and the other was not; and whether that surviving pilot bailed out of the rocket plane or was ejected by some other force.
But Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB, said Saturday that the sheer size of the debris field — five miles, stretching in a southwest direction in the Mojave Desert — signals that it suffered the catastrophic event in mid-air. "That spread of the debris field tells us that it was an in-flight separation. And of course the question then is, why did that happen," he said.
Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, was able to deploy a parachute and was recovering at a hospital Saturday, but his co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed. Hart said investigators found one parachute that had been deployed and another that was not deployed. The NTSB has not yet interviewed Siebold, on the advice of doctors caring for him. “We don’t want to interview that pilot before the pilot is ready,” he said.
From northeast to the southwest, investigators found parts of the spacecraft’s tail booms, then parts of the fuselage along with the fuel tank and oxidizer tank, then the cockpit and finally the rocket engine itself, Hart said. He said the NTSB is expected to be on the scene of the crash for four to seven days, but a complete analysis is expected to take 12 months.
During that time there is nothing to prevent more test flights, although Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson on Saturday vowed to find out what caused the crash, and said the program would “not push on blindly.”
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