Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic team owe it to the pilot who died in a test flight crash to make the space tourism project succeed, a colleague has said.
Dave Mackay, a former RAF pilot who joined Virgin Galactic in 2009, has recalled the moment Mike Alsbury plummeted to earth in the VSS Enterprise SpaceShipTwo over the Californian desert last October.
Alsbury, a 39-year-old father of two, was found in the wreckage, while his co-pilot Peter Siebold, 43, was able to parachute to safety.
Mackay, originally from Scotland, was on board WhiteKnightTwo – the jet-powered cargo aircraft used to lift SpaceShipTwo before releasing it at altitude – when his colleagues’ aircraft started to rip apart nine miles above the Earth.
He told the BBC: “The spaceship dropped several feet below us before the motor is ignited. The accident happened pretty soon after the motor ignition so we actually in WhiteKnight saw nothing.
“But we were listening to the radio and we were aware that something had gone badly wrong.”
It has since been reported that when the craft hit Mach 1.02 10 seconds after its engines were ignited, the ship’s “feather” system – designed to stabilise the craft during re-entry – was unlocked prematurely by Alsbury.
An investigation by America’s National Transportation Safety Board is expected to publish its findings in a few weeks.
Mackay said once he realised SpaceShipTwo had hit the ground, he lowered his aircraft to help locate the wreckage and Siebold.
“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.”
Mackay said the team believe there is nothing essentially wrong with the vehicle but are taking steps to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring, including improving teamwork in the cockpit.
“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 and we’re enjoying the challenge,” he said.