In 2004, I sat down in a flight simulator at Scaled Composites with test pilot and engineer Peter Siebold. He'd built the simulator—a precise replica of the cockpit in Scaled's radically unconventional SpaceShipOne (SS1). That ship was the predecessor of SpaceShipTwo (SS2), which broke apart over the Mojave Desert on Friday. Siebold was at the controls at the time of the accident, with Mike Alsbury as co-pilot
Visionary aerospace designer Burt Rutan invented these odd birds, and the revolutionary feathered-wing re-entry system that both test craft share. Ten years ago, Siebold was a key part of the team bringing the system to life. As he showed me how to fly in the simulator, we chatted about the stress of piloting such a novel and admittedly twitchy vehicle under the extreme circumstances of rocket-powered spaceflight—even if the "space" part was brief, lasting barely three or four minutes on each parabolic arc the spindly craft cut through the sky.
Siebold was torn. Being involved in the program was a privilege, but the experience became a surprisingly emotional roller coaster. He badly wanted to earn his astronaut wings and was in heated competition with the other pilots on Rutan's team for missions. When the time came for Rutan to select the pilots, however, Siebold opted out.