On 31 October 2014, a manager at Virgin Galactic’s hangar in Mojave, California, picked up the phone and said the words; “Blue Zebra”. The phrase was meaningless to onlookers, but to the team, it had only one meaning – catastrophe.
In the company’s latest attempt to make commercial space travel possible, Michael T. Alsbury and Peter Siebold were piloting a test flight of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. Reaching an airspeed of Mach 0.8, hitting the transonic zone, the spaceship’s flight was going exactly to plan. Suddenly, Alsbury did something that experts still struggle to explain; he reached for the lever that controlled the ‘feather’. This was an innovation by aerospace engineer Bert Rutan that allowed the ship’s tail booms to rotate vertically to allow for a smooth reentry. On this occasion, Alsbury unlocked too early, which led to the ship shredding apart in midair. Miraculously, Siebold survived with a broken back and dislocated shoulder, but tragically Alsbury lost his life in the accident.