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Injured pilot 'alert and talking'

The pilot injured in a Virgin Galactic test flight crash that killed his colleague is "alert and talking", his employer has said.

Peter Siebold, the director of flight operations at Scaled Composites, was piloting SpaceShipTwo when it crashed in the Mojave desert in California on Friday.

His co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed when the craft suffered what the firm called a "serious anomaly".

Officials from the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) have started their investigation into what caused SpaceShipTwo rocket, which had been under development at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, to come down.

In a press conference Christopher Hart of the NTSB said the investigation at the scene - which spans five miles - could take between four and seven days.

He added that six cameras were on board the aircraft, although could not say whether all had been recovered.

Mr Hart said they have "extensive data" available to them as test flights are "heavily documented" in ways other flights are not.

He confirmed one parachute was found near where the survivor pilot was found, while the other had remained "undeployed".

The investigation is expected to take up to 12 months in its entirety, he said, adding that interviews have already begun.

He confirmed the probe will not stop Virgin Galactic from operations but said the NTSB can and would issue recommendations during their probe if they felt it necessary.

The craft was designed to be carried into the air by the WhiteKnightTwo jet and then released before igniting its rocket to travel into space, and then returning to Earth as a glider.

A statement released by the Scaled Composites said Mr Siebold, 43, has been communicating with medical staff and his family.

It said: "The Scaled Composites family lost a respected and devoted colleague yesterday, Michael Alsbury, who was the co-pilot for the test flight of SpaceShipTwo.

"Peter Siebold, the director of flight operations at Scaled Composites, was piloting SpaceShipTwo. He is alert and talking with his family and doctors.

"We remain focused on supporting the families of the two pilots and all of our employees, as well as the agencies investigating the accident. We ask at this time that everyone please respect the privacy of the families."

Mr Alsbury, 39 from Tehachapi, California, had worked for Scaled Composites in Mojave for 13 years and was a project engineer and test pilot, according to a biography provided last year for a Society of Experimental Test Pilots symposium where he was the keynote speaker.

The biography, posted online in July last year, said he had recently been the co-pilot for both SpaceShipTwo's first glide and first powered flight.

Mr Alsbury's experience was said to span preliminary aircraft design, manufacturing, flight test planning and flight test support as a flight test engineer and test pilot.

He had logged more than 1,600 hours as test pilot and test engineer in Scaled Composites aircraft and had participated in the flight testing of nine different manned aircraft.

The Scaled Composites website says Peter Siebold is an aeronautical engineer, experimental test pilot and flight test engineer at Scaled Composites.

He holds a degree in aerospace engineering from California Polytechnic University and has been working at Scaled since 1996.

A design engineer specialising in avionics and data acquisition design and development, he was responsible for the development of the simulator, avionics/navigation system and ground control system for the SpaceShipOne program.

He has 17 years of flight experience with 2,000 hours in 35 different fixed wing aircraft and is an associate member of The Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire tycoon behind the Virgin Galactic space programme yesterday said it will continue after the fatal crash, adding that millions of people "would one day love the chance to go to space".

He travelled to California straight after the crash and has since said any would-be astronauts who had paid the £150,000 cost of a seat would get a refund if they wanted one.

But he added: "We would love to finish what we started some years ago and I think pretty well all our astronauts would love us to finish and would love to go into space.

"I think millions of people in the world would one day love the chance to go to space and this is the start of a long programme."

Sir Richard said he was determined to help authorities find out what caused the crash but likened the incident to the early days of flight.

He said: "In the early days of aviation there were incidents and then aviation became very safe.

"In the early days of commercial space travel there have been incidents and then, we hope, that one day the tests pilots will enable people to go into space safely and that is our wish and desire."

Sir Richard added: "We owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong and once we have found out what went wrong, if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain the dream lives on."

He said the company had had numerous messages of support, including one new sign-up to the programme yesterday.

He also hit out at people who have been commenting on possible causes of the incident, saying: "I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments."

Peter Collins, an experimental test pilot told the BBC it is a question of risk rather than safety.

" You're part of the programme, you are in with the engineers, in with the designers, you would say I think what you want or should have," he said.

"It's not a question, people flag the banner of safety but what it is is risk. If you were not happy with that risk then you say 'well, you know, I won't fly because we need to do this, this and this, if you don't do it, that's too much of a risk'."

The advancements in space travel as far back as the 1960s make incidents such as Friday's crash more surprising, Mr Collins added.

"I am amazed that we can't get a rocket to work, and a rocket that seems quite volatile. This didn't occur because of a break-up of the aeroplane, because it went too fast or it hit another aeroplane. The guy obviously pressed the button and it blew up."

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