Billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson vowed Saturday to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism craft that killed a test pilot and injured another, both of whom graduated from Cal Poly.
The pilot killed in the test flight was identified Saturday as Michael Tyner Alsbury, 39. The surviving pilot is Peter Siebold, 43, who parachuted to safety and was hospitalized.
Alsbury and Siebold graduated from the Cal Poly aerospace engineering program, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier confirmed Saturday. According to Lazier, Alsbury graduated in 1998 and Siebold in 2001.
“The Cal Poly family is deeply saddened to learn that the tragic accident aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo involved two of our alumni, Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold,” Lazier said. “Both men have made Cal Poly proud working at the leading edge of their industry. We extend our deepest condolences to all who have been touched by this tragic event.”
Both men lived in Tehachapi, near the Mojave Air and Space Port, where they conducted test flights of Virgin Galactic’s experimental space planes with Scaled Composites LLC.
Alsbury, the co-pilot of SpaceShipTwo, was found dead at one of the multiple debris sites following the spacecraft’s explosion mid-flight at 9 a.m. Friday, Kern County Sheriff’s Office officials said in a news release Saturday.
Alsbury had at least 15 years of flight experience and logged more than 1,600 hours as a test pilot and test engineer, according to an Associated Press report.
At Scaled Composites LLC, Alsbury participated in the flight testing of nine different manned aircraft and co-piloted SpaceShipTwo when it broke the sound barrier during its first powered flight last year. He was also sitting in the co-pilot’s seat when the craft was released for the first time in 2010 from its carrier aircraft several miles above the Earth for an unpowered glide test.
The married father of two also was the recipient of Northrop Grumman’s President’s Award for Innovation-for-Affordability Excellence this year.
“Without mincing words or really embellishing anything … I consider Mike Alsbury the renaissance man,” said Brian Binnie, another test pilot who worked at Scaled Composites for
14 years before leaving the company in February. “He could do it all. He was an engineer. He was a pilot. He worked well with others. He had a great sense of humor. I never heard him raise his voice or lose his cool.”
Siebold, who ejected from the aircraft and parachuted to the ground, was found by sheriff’s deputies and airlifted to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster for treatment of moderate to major injuries. Officials said Saturday afternoon that he was alert and talking, and awaiting surgery.
Siebold has been a member of the Scaled Composites LLC astronaut team since 1996, and he serves as director of flight operations, according to his biography on the Scaled Composites website. He was responsible for the development of the ground control system for the SpaceShipOne program — SpaceShipTwo’s precursor — and had more than 17 years of experience, including more than 2,000 hours in 35 different fixed-wing crafts. He was piloting the aircraft at the time of the accident.
The cause of the accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
In grim remarks at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Branson gave no details of Friday’s accident and deferred to the NTSB.
“We are determined to find out what went wrong,” he said, asserting that safety has always been the top priority of the program that envisions taking wealthy tourists six at a time to the edge of space for a brief experience of weightlessness and a view of Earth below.
“Yesterday, we fell short,” he said. “We’ll now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward.”
Branson criticized early speculation about crash causes.
“To be honest, I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they’re saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments.”
More than a dozen investigators in a range of specialties were forming teams to examine the crash site, collect data and interview witnesses, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart told a news conference at Mojave Air and Space Port.
“This will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch (accident) that involved persons onboard,” Hart said, noting that the NTSB did participate in investigations of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
Virgin Galactic — owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — plans to fly passengers to altitudes more than 62 miles above Earth. The company sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000.
Friday’s accident was the second this past week involving private space flight.
On Tuesday, an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff in Virginia. SpaceShipTwo is based on aerospace design maverick Burt Rutan’s award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004.
Three people died in a blast at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2007 while testing a rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo.