The team behind the Virgin Galactic attempts to make commercial space flight a reality must carry on despite a fatal accident, a colleague has said.
Dave Mackay, the company’s chief pilot, was flying alongside the company’s test spaceship as it broke apart in mid-air and crashed into the ground, killing one of his colleagues.
"We were listening out on the radio and it became apparent fairly early that something had gone seriously wrong," Mackay told the BBC.
Mike Alsbury was taking part in a test flight of the VSS Enterprise SpaceShipTwo, one of the ships that Virgin Galactic hope can be used to carry tourists into space. An accident brought the plane crashing down to Earth and Alsbury died, though the co-pilot was able to escape.
But the company should keep pushing on to make commercial space flight work, despite the setback, colleague Mackay said.
“People were shocked and very saddened and it took quite a while, a couple of days or so, to really get over that initial shock I think,” he said. “But there was a determination to find out what had happened and why it had happened.
“We have got a fantastic team of very smart people here. We owe it to people like Mike Alsbury and others who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the past to make this succeed.”
Others involved in the project, including Richard Branson himself, have said that it will continue despite the problems.
Mackay likened their work to similar people who had sacrificed themselves to make other forms of travel work.
“You could look back to Otto Lilienthal crashing in his glider,” Mackay told the BBC, referencing the German aviation pioneer who died during a test flight. “If people had said then, you know this flying is dangerous, let’s stick to walking on the ground, where would we be today? It is hard. It has turned out to be harder than we thought it would.
“But if it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago. We’re enjoying the challenge.”
Analysis seems to suggest that Alsbury pulled a lever that unlocked the ship’s “feathering” system, designed to slow it down as it comes back to land. But it was deployed too early, meaning that the ship plummeted down to Earth, according to investigators.
The pilot, Peter Siebold, blacked out and then came to as the plane was falling back to Earth. He managed to unlock his seatbelt and triggered a parachute to escape — but Alsbury was and was killed in the accident.
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