Virgin spaceship blows up, kills one
MOJAVE, California (AP) – A winged spaceship designed to take tourists on excursions beyond Earth’s atmosphere broke up during a test flight Friday over the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot in the second fiery setback for commercial space travel in less than a week.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo blew apart after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the explosion.
One pilot was found dead inside the spacecraft and another parachuted out and was flown by helicopter to a hospital, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.
The crash area was about 120 miles (193 kilometres) north of downtown Los Angeles and 20 miles (32 kilometres) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the flight originated.
British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, has been the front-runner in the fledgling race to give large numbers of paying civilians a suborbital ride that would let them experience weightlessness and see the Earth from the edge of space.
Branson was expected to arrive in Mojave today, as were investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Space is hard, and today was a tough day,” Virgin Galactic CEO President George Whitesides said. “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this.”
The accident occurred just as it seemed commercial space flights were near, after a period of development that lasted far longer than hundreds of prospective passengers had expected.
Branson released a statement Friday night saying it was “among the most difficult trips I have ever had to make” but that he wants to be “with the dedicated and hardworking people who are now in shock at this devastating loss”.
“Space is hard – but worth it,” Branson wrote. “We will persevere and move forward together.”
When Virgin Group licensed the technology from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who put $26 million into SpaceShipOne, Branson envisioned operating flights by 2007. In interviews last month, he talked about the first flight being next spring with his son.
“It’s a real setback to the idea that lots of people are going to be taking joyrides into the fringes of outer space any time soon,” said John Logsdon, retired space policy director at George Washington University. “There were a lot of people who believed that the technology to carry people is safely at hand.”