Pilot dead as Virgin spaceship crashes in US desert (Update 4)

October 31, 2014 by Michael Thurston

A man walks past the SpaceShipTwo vessel at Spaceport America, northeast of Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, on October 17, 2011
Virgin Galactic's pioneering spacecraft designed to take tourists into space crashed Friday in California, killing one of its two pilots and scattering debris across the desert.

Television images showed the wreckage of SpaceShipTwo, a test vehicle that flies to the edge of space, amid brush east of Mojave, a few hours' drive northeast of Los Angeles.

"Space is hard and today was a tough day," George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic told reporters at a media briefing a few hours after the crash.

"When we have a mishap from the test community, we find the test community is very small ... and we are human, and it hurts," added Stuart Witt, head of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The incident is the econd disaster involving a US spacecraft this week, after an unmanned Orbital Science rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded after launch on Tuesday.

It is also a huge blow to British tycoon Richard Branson's long-held dream of offering the first passenger space flights, which have been snapped up by celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Virgin chief said he was heading straight to the site, as the California Highway Patrol confirmed that one pilot had died and another was seriously injured and taken to hospital.

"Thoughts with all @virgingalactic ... I'm flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team," he wrote on Twitter. Whitesides later said that the globe-trotting tycoon was due in Mojave by Saturday morning.

Reserved seats

The spaceship had been carried aloft on a bigger aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo and then released for a test of its rocket engine above the Mojave desert, the latest in a series of tests.

Witt told reporters that WhiteKnightTwo took off at 9:20 am, and released SpaceShipTwo at an altitude of 45,000 feet, at 10:10 am, after 50 minutes of flight.

Two minutes later Witt, watching from the space port, said it became clear something had gone wrong, even though there was nothing obvious visually from the ground.

"If there was a huge explosion I didn't see it," he said, adding: "From my eyes and my ears I detected nothing that appeared abnormal."

The US air safety agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said it was sending a team to the site of the crash.

The flight—the 35th by SpaceShipTwo, according to Virgin Galactic's Twitter feed—involved the same configuration as previously, although the type of fuel was new, officials said.

More than 500 people have already reserved seats—and paid a deposit on the $250,000 ticket price—for a minutes-long suborbital flight on SpaceShipTwo, which can carry six passengers.

DiCaprio and fellow actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore are among those already reported to have booked their place.

In May "Titanic" star DiCaprio auctioned off an invitation to join him on a trip with him into space, raising 700,000 euros ($876,000).

Private companies are rushing to fill the gap left by NASA, which ended its 30-year shuttle program in July with the completion of the final Atlantis mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Analysts said the accident is a huge blow to the nascent industry.

"It's a setback for the tourism industry," said Marco Caceres, an analyst and director of space studies for the Teal Group, a defense and aerospace consultancy just outside of Washington, DC.

"You are not going to see any commercial space tourism flight next year or probably several years after that," he told AFP.

But Witt said the commercial space industry, and all the young entrepreneurs working in it, must move beyond Friday's tragedy. "My message to theme is stay the course," he said.

Whitesides echoed the sentiment, saying: "We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today. And we're going to get through it.

The future rests in many ways on hard days like these.

Reality TV

"We believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles .. to understand this and to move forward, which is what we'll do," he said.

Friday's incident is the second involving an American spacecraft this week, after the Orbital Science rocket exploded six seconds after launch on a resupply mission to the ISS.

Initial investigations into that explosion centered on the pair of rocket engines providing its thrust, which were made during the Soviet era and refurbished.

The Virgin crash also raised questions over a reality TV show, "Space Race."

The show, which was commissioned last year, pits contenders against each other to win a flight on the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, according to entertainment industry journal Variety.

Explore further: Virgin spacecraft prototype soars over Mojave, testing re-entry system

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5 / 5 (12) Oct 31, 2014
Spaceflight is a dangerous business, and these pilots are a rare and courageous breed. When they fly, they carry part of our future with them. I hope they made it out alright - and if not, they will occupy a place of honor.
2 / 5 (1) Oct 31, 2014
As I understand, one was killed and the other heavily/severely injured.

My condolences to families and friends.

I know that any form of exploration has always held a certain risk of life and limb, and I hope this accident doesn't lead to negative views of the future of space flight. Just remember, even the NASA programs had their casualties, so we should not look down upon the private industry just yet.

Even though I don't necessarily thing Branson's company is the wisest application of space flight, I hope they eventually figure out how to make this work just for the sake of improvement of public and government view of spaceflight, as well as advancement of the technology.

I am a little disgusted with the seemingly unnecessarily complicated launch mechanism. NASA has had both successes and failures with other programs using similar launch mechanisms, and capture mechanisms, for unmanned programs. They are betting everything on this design now.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2014
I think the Apollo design was the most successful overall, which is why Orion is returning to what amounts to an updated Apollo design. I wonder if a capsule which somehow unfolds to a Glider would be more appropriate to space tourism? This way you'd launch in a less complicated single or multi-stage rocket.

I say that's less complicated because in a rocket the stages are often linear or parallel engines. In the present launch system, the space craft rides under the belly of another plane, must disengage, and then launch under it's own power in a situation where more than one craft-relative direction of motion/actions is required to complete the maneuver. This is bad IMO.

I'm not blaming the launch mechanism for this particular crash at this point, we'll have to wait for whatever flight data has survived the incident before we know what type of failure caused this to happen, I'm just saying it's one of those things I never liked, and had a bad feeling about.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2014
The Mojave eats aircraft. While I was stationed at Edwards AFB in 5/66-4/67, we lost a plane a week and a pilot a month. They included F-104, XB-70A, XC-142, XV-5A, a Blackbird (probably an A-12 or F-12), an X-15, an M2-F2 Lifting Body, and others I forgot.

I don't know why they destroyed all the F-1 engine jigs and fixtures. The Saturn Five never had a major failure, with a 100% success rate. The first all-up test of the F-1 at Edwards Rocket Site happened my first night on base, and I ran out in the middle of the desert in my skivvies thinking all the shaking was an earthquake.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2014
I suspect a structural failure on that aircraft, from the lack of fire damage and the separation of the debris fields.

Oh, and somebody tell Eikka I was Airman of the Month for the Air Force Flight Test Center, October 1966, which includes NASA and Groom Lake, what you call Area 51.
not rated yet Nov 01, 2014
"I don't know why they destroyed all the F-1 engine jigs and fixtures."


Like in UK when the TSR-2 jigs were smashed *without delay* when the program was cancelled; No subsequent vote could be allowed to reverse that stupid decision...
5 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2014
As this type of endeavor is inherently dangerous, those that undertake it are a couragous lot to say the least. That being said, it seems an unnecessary risk not to use remote telemetry and control at such a point in this developmental stage. My heart goes out to the families of those involved.

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