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Virgin Galactic pilot gives first account of SpaceShipTwo's destruction

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The pilot who survived the SpaceShipTwo crash says that his parachute deployed automatically after he was extracted from the vehicle while it broke up. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board began interviewing the pilot, Peter Siebold, on Friday, following the ship's crash late last month. He was discharged from the hospital last Monday after being treated for injuries to his shoulder. The NTSB says that Siebold's accounts are consistent with what it's learned from other sources of data, such as video, in its ongoing investigation.

The pilot wasn't aware of the early wing unlock

Siebold tells the NTSB that he was unaware that his co-pilot had unlocked the ship's feathering system early. This means that it remains unexplained why SpaceShipTwo's co-pilot began the process of lifting the vehicle's wings before he was clear to do so. The wings ultimately deployed early, shortly before SpaceShipTwo began to break apart. It also remains unclear why the wings actually deployed, when a final trigger for their activation had not been engaged. These are the first remarks that we've heard from Siebold about what was occurring on SpaceShipTwo before the crash.

When the ship broke apart, Siebold was released at an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the air was thin and the temperature was around minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly minus 57 degrees Celsius), according to Bloomberg. Wind reportedly would have battered his body, and he likely became unconscious within seconds. Air Force pilots generally wear pressurized space suits at that altitude, but Siebold was not in one.

The NTSB says that its on-scene investigation into the crash has now concluded. The ship's wreckage has all been recovered and is being stored for further examination as well. The investigation is still ongoing, and as of last week, the NTSB said that it would be months before it determined a cause for the crash.

Correction: this article originally stated that Siebold was reported to have noticed water on his tongue boiling before passing out. That account was actually from a subject in an earlier atmospheric chamber test.