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Still Unknown In Virgin Space Crash: How Pilot Got Out

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's been a little over a week since a commercial space plane crashed in the California desert. The pilot was badly injured and the copilot died. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board have spent days since the crash collecting wreckage and beginning an extensive investigation. Joining me to discuss what we know so far is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Hello, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I would like to start by playing you a piece of tape from a guest we had on last week. Joel Glenn Brenner is a reporter. She's covered the company that made this plane, Virgin Galactic and she blamed a new rocket being used in the plane for the crash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOEL GLENN BRENNER: It is this new rocket. I have no doubt that was the cause of yesterday's explosion.

WERTHEIMER: What has the investigation found so far? Is the rocket the problem?

BRUMFIEL: This was a new variation of a rocket that Virgin Galactic had used before and the company maintains that it's safe. Investigators found the rocket intact so it didn't explode and the NTSB found something else; according to data and video from the cockpit, the copilot pulled a lever before he was supposed to.

WERTHEIMER: So was that a mistake that could've brought down the plane?

BRUMFIEL: It's too early to say. This lever controlled something called the feather mechanism. Basically the way this spaceship works is it actually shoots up just to the edge of space and then sort of glides back to Earth and in order to glide back down and re-enter, the tail of the plane actually sort of flips up and that provides more stability. If this tail goes up too early it can have big consequences because the thick atmosphere could put pressure on it and cause the plane to break apart, but it's still too early to say.

WERTHEIMER: I understand it's also not clear how the pilot got out.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. What's really sort of fascinating is this spacecraft, it doesn't have ejection seats so we're faced with the possibility that the pilot may have just found himself in the open air at Mach One, at 50,000 feet and he somehow survived that and managed to open his parachute and make it back to Earth.

WERTHEIMER: This is supposed to be a commercial spacecraft and hundreds of people have paid for future rides. How are the potential passengers reacting?

BRUMFIEL: I've corresponded with about a half-dozen ticketholders this week and they say overwhelmingly that they would not be asking for refunds. One of them, an adventure journalist named Jim Clash, told me why.

JIM CLASH: I've swam at the North Pole without a wetsuit and I've climbed the Matterhorn. I've got done a lot of the things on my bucket list, but space is something I haven't done.

BRUMFIEL: So far, Virgin says only about 3 percent of the passengers have asked for refunds but these are still early days and I think the company's future really hinges on what this investigation finds was the cause behind this accident.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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