[FPSPACE] LA Times on tragedy

David Portree dsfportree at hotmail.com
Thu Nov 6 08:46:49 EST 2014

The more I learn, the more like early Shuttle private spaceflight as a whole seems.

David S. F. Portree
author and stuff
dsfportree at hotmail.com
dportree at usgs.gov

Date: Thu, 6 Nov 2014 09:43:46 +0200
From: kgottschalk at uwc.ac.za
To: fpspace at friends-partners.org
Subject: [FPSPACE] LA Times on tragedy

     A US friend emailed me the following, which will already have been read by some, but not all, FPSPACE participants.

   Hindsight suggests that the lack of spacesuits was as important here as in the deaths of those three Soviet cosmonauts in shirtsleeves who asphyxiated in that tragedy in the 1970s. So wearing at the very least a personal oxygen supply with polar clothing seems needed for future test flights. & the designers also need to look at personal oxygen supplies for each passenger like the STS.

- Keith

Virgin Galactic pilot defied the odds to survive 
L.A. Times, 5 Nov 2014
The Virgin Galactic rocket plane had just broken the sound barrier and was 
shooting toward the heavens when it began disintegrating, battered by powerful 
aerodynamic forces.
The pilots were strapped into their seats as entire pieces were torn from 
SpaceShipTwo. At more than 10 miles high, with fingers no doubt numb from the 
cold, Peter Siebold somehow escaped from the hurtling wreckage.
Siebold, who had been flying Virgin Galactic's spaceships for a decade, had 
to rely on his experience and his instincts. He had a parachute but no spacesuit 
to protect him from the lethal environment as he plunged toward Earth at close 
to the speed of a bullet.
At almost twice the height of Mt. Everest, the air is dangerously thin and 
the temperature is about 70 degrees below zero. It was a real world case of 
survival in the face of disaster, like the movie "Gravity."
Siebold managed to deploy his parachute and land in the Mojave Desert. His 
shoulder was smashed and a fellow pilot described him as "pretty banged up." He 
was discharged from the hospital Monday.
"The fact that he survived a descent of 50,000 feet is pretty amazing," 
said Paul Tackabury, a veteran test pilot who sat on the board of directors of 
Scaled Composites until it was sold to Northrop Grumman Corp. "You don't just 
jump out of aircraft at Mach 1 at over 50,000 feet without a space suit."
Siebold's partner, 39-year-old copilot Michael Alsbury, was found dead, 
strapped into his seat in the wreckage.
Hundreds of test pilots, like Alsbury, have died in their work over the 
last century. Edwards Air Force Base, where some of the nation's most secret 
planes are tested, is named for pilot Capt. Glen Edwards, who died in an 
experimental craft in 1948.
But Siebold's jump is part of a long history of extraordinary feats of 
survival by test pilots who have defied the odds through skill, faith or 
Perhaps nobody can appreciate Siebold's gift for survival more than Bob 
Hoover, the famed 92-year-old test pilot who survived five crashes and lives in 
Palos Verdes.
"I have been broken up from head to toe," he said. "It is the reason I am 
all crippled up now."
In October 1947, he ejected out of one of the first combat jets, the 
Republic F-84, and hit the tail at 500 mph, breaking both legs and busting his 
face. Several years later, he was trapped in a disabled F-100 Super Sabre that 
slammed into the desert, bounced 200 feet back into the air and then slammed 
down again. It broke his back. Rescue crews had to chop him out of the wreckage. 
His career continued for decades longer and he eventually flew 300 types of 
As for Siebold, Hoover said, "It is a miracle he got out. At 50,000 feet, 
your survival time is very limited, and for him to pull the rip cord in those 
conditions is pretty surprising. I am so happy for him."
The exact details of Siebold's more than 10-mile fall are still unknown. On 
Monday night, federal investigators said they still had not been able to 
interview him.
"We don't know how he got out," National Transportation Safety Board 
spokesman Eric Weiss said Tuesday.
Ken Brown, a photographer and avionics engineer who was taking shots of the 
test flight Friday, said his pictures show that the rocket plane was in pieces 
in a few moments.
SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo ferry craft at somewhere 
between 45,000 and 50,000 feet. Then the rocket motor ignited, blasting the 
craft over the next 13 seconds to more than Mach 1, NTSB investigators said. The 
rocket plane malfunctioned after its tail, known as a feather, deployed at the 
wrong time. The NTSB said it could take up to a year to unravel the cause.
Brown said he believes the plane may have been at 60,000 feet or higher 
when it broke apart.
"Peter is a lucky guy," Brown said. "The vehicle disintegrated around him. 
He would have found himself falling."
In such thin air, Hoover said it is almost impossible to inhale or 
"It is the most horrible feeling in the world," Hoover recalled.
Exactly when Siebold pulled his rip cord is unknown. He may have fallen 
freely for miles to exit the cold as fast as possible. Brown believes Siebold 
may not have deployed his parachute until well under 20,000 feet.
SpaceShipTwo pilots wear thin flight jumpsuits, offering little protection 
against the bitter cold of the upper atmosphere. It was a decision made early in 
the program by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed the predecessor 
SpaceShipOne, Tackabury said. The craft was made by winding composite fibers 
into a strong pressure vessel, and Rutan wanted small hatches to preserve the 
strength of that structure, meaning large spacesuits would not fit, Tackabury 
Friday's test flight was crucial to Virgin Galactic's program, which aims 
to ferry wealthy tourists to the edge of space. The WhiteKnightTwo and 
SpaceShipTwo both had grown over their designed weight, Tackabury said, meaning 
the spacecraft would have to launch from a lower altitude than the planned 
50,000 feet. To compensate, Scaled Composites was testing a new hybrid solid 
rocket motor that used a faster burning fuel producing greater thrust.
The need to test experimental aircraft has always taken pilots to the edges 
of safety.
In 1966, Lockheed test pilot Bill Weaver was flying an SR-71 at 3.2 times 
the speed of sound at 78,000 feet when it began to disintegrate around him, just 
like SpaceShipTwo. He blacked out under the severe forces. When he regained 
awareness, his plane was gone and he was flying through the air strapped to his 
seat. The absurdity of his situation led Weaver to think, "Therefore I must be 
dead," he wrote later.
In fact, he came to his senses and parachuted to a New Mexico cattle ranch, 
where the owner rescued him.
Test pilot Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the sound barrier, had his 
own fall from space in 1963 when his Lockheed NF-104A lost control at 108,700 
feet, 21 miles above the Earth. The plane went into a spin and plunged to 7,000 
feet while Yeager desperately tried to restart the plane's engine. Finally, 
Yeager ejected. But the exit was far from clean, and rocket fuel from the 
ejection seat leaked over Yeager, giving him second- and third-degree burns, 
according to written accounts. When rescuers arrived, Yeager was reportedly 
standing with his helmet in the crook of his arm and his parachute properly 
rolled up.
Siebold, the father of two children, has flown 35 different aircraft and 
holds a license as a glider pilot as well, according to his biography. His 
official company portrait shows a man with dense wavy black hair squinting 
against bright desert sunlight and wearing a sly smile. He has an engineering 
degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has worked at Scaled Composites since 
"I just think it was a miracle," said his Tehachapi neighbor Maureen 
Cornyn. "I'm very thankful for them. But again, you're torn because there's 
somebody else's father and son that's been 

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