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Virgin Galactic crash: Copilot who died unlocked lever early, NTSB says

Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif. The explosion killed a pilot aboard and seriously injured another while scattering wreckage in Southern California's Mojave Desert, witnesses and officials said.
Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif. The explosion killed a pilot aboard and seriously injured another while scattering wreckage in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, witnesses and officials said.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed Monday night that the copilot who died in the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo prematurely unlocked the spacecraft’s aerodynamic controls.

After some confusion, acting chairman Christopher Hart clarified that 39-year-old Michael Alsbury, who died in Friday’s crash, was in the right seat. He flipped a switch to unlock a lever that may have caused the spacecraft’s tail to rise and create drag -- an action known as “feathering.”

That action occurred moments before SpaceShipTwo “disintegrated,” according to the NTSB.

The rocket ship, which was designed to shoot wealthy tourists into space, broke apart over the Mojave Desert during a test flight Friday morning, killing Alsbury and seriously injuring test pilot Peter Siebold.

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Late Sunday, the NTSB said pilot error may have been the main cause of the crash.

Siebold has yet to be interviewed, Hart said.

Hart said the agency is wrapping up its on-site investigation over the next few days.

Parts of SpaceShipTwo were found as far as 35 miles northeast of crash site, the largest piece being the fuselage, Hart said.

A “human performance group” was formed Monday to examine the human-machine interface of the crash and what led up to it, Hart said.
It may take up to a year for the agency to complete its investigation.

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Although tragic, Virgin Galactic officials say the fatal crash will not deter the company from its mission.

The company released a statement after the crash that read: “Everything we do is to pursue the vision of accessible and democratized space — and to do it safely.”

In an interview with The Times on Sunday, George Whitesides, chief executive of Mojave-based Virgin Galactic, said work would continue in order to finish a second aircraft by the end of the year.

Follow Ryan Parker for breaking news at @theryanparker and on Facebook.

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