Federal investigators today revealed that one of the two pilots of the Virgin Galactic crash last month was able to survive the ordeal because he was still strapped in his seat as the plane broke apart in midair but was able to free himself.
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The pilot, Peter Siebold, told investigators he somehow unbuckled himself from his seat as he plunged toward Earth in SpaceShipTwo, the National Transportation Safety Board said today. His parachute deployed automatically. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was found dead in the wreckage in the Mojave Desert, still strapped into his seat.
The rocket plane, which is part of a program that will take passengers into space, had just broken the sound barrier and was 10 miles high when it broke up during the Oct. 31 test flight. The incident occurred just when the craft was being dropped from the WhiteKnightTwo, the mother ship.
"According to the pilot, he was unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early by the co-pilot," the NTSB said today. "His description of the vehicle motion was consistent with other data sources in the investigation. He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the breakup sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically."
Investigators have said that the copilot had unlocked the craft's movable tail, and that likely led to the breakup of the aircraft. It's unknown why the tail deployed early.
It could be a year before federal investigators have any answers about what caused the Virgin Galactic spacecraft to crash, but that won’t apparently stop the company from pursuing its space tourism ventures.
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson vowed earlier this month that the crash would not be the end of the company's effort, and said that by finding out what caused the disaster they would "honor the bravery" of the pilots.
"We are determined to honor the bravery of the pilots and the teams here by learning from this tragedy," Branson said. "Only then can we move forward, united behind a collective desire to push the boundaries of human endeavor."
Though the company "fell short" when the rocket broke apart, Branson said his team would learn from the crash and "push on."
"In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants," he said. "Yesterday, we fell short."
The prospects for commercial space travel should not be dismissed because of the incident Friday, he said, comparing it to commercial air travel.
"In the early days of aviation, there were incidents and then aviation became very safe," he said. "In the early days of commercial space travel, there have been incidents and then we hope that one day, the test pilots will enable people to be able to go to space safely and that is our wish and desire."
Branson said that anyone who signed up for a chance at space travel, which costs as much as $250,000 per person, can have their money refunded.
Several hundred people have already bought seats on future space flights, including Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. But Branson said Virgin Galactic, his company developing private space flight, has not used any of the money.
ABC NEWS' Geetika Rudra and The Associated Press contributed to this report.