SpaceShipTwo's Surviving Pilot Was Ejected Into -70 Degree Air

By Alissa Walker on at

Investigators are still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong in with the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. While the National Transportation Safety Board has been looking into an issue with the braking system, the agency has released details from surviving pilot Peter Siebold about how he managed to escape the exploding spacecraft.

When SpaceShipTwo broke apart it was about nine miles above sea level—almost 50,000 feet, which is twice the height of Mt. Everest. Siebold was ejected, still in his seat, moving at about 600 miles per hour through air that was estimated to be at least -70 degrees Fahrenheit. He was not wearing a spacesuit.

Siebold was knocked unconscious almost immediately, but according to the report, his last memory was sensing that the moisture on his tongue was boiling. That's because water boils at much lower temperatures when you're at higher elevation due to a decrease in pressure, so the heat of his own body would have been plenty to push it over the boiling point.

Amazingly, Siebold's parachute deployed automatically, and even though he spent as many as 15 seconds in the ultra-thin atmosphere, he regained consciousness when he drifted closer to Earth and suffered no permanent damage from the lack of oxygen. Sadly, his co-pilot, Michael Tyner Alsbury did not survive, and investigators are trying to determine if this was due to his position in the craft. You can read more details from the NTSB report here. [Bloomberg]

Photo by Ken Brown/AP