A VIRGIN spaceship has crashed in a United States desert, killing a co-pilot onboard and leaving the pilot with major injuries after he managed to eject, as disaster struck billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism venture yesterday.
Virgin Galactic said its SpaceShipTwo rocket had been on a test flight as part of plans for commercial space travel when it “experienced an in-flight anomaly” over California’s Mojave desert.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
SpaceShipTwo was designed to be carried into the air by a WhiteKnightTwo jet and then released before igniting its rocket to travel into space then gliding back to Earth.
The problem is believed to have happened after SpaceShipTwo fired up its rocket motor – understood to be using a new fuel and design – following a high-altitude drop from the mothership. Photographer Ken Brown said he saw SpaceShipTwo released but “exploding” moments later.
The pilot who was found at the scene was taken to hospital. The co-pilot was understood to have died in the wreckage.
Last night, Sir Richard was on his way to the Mojave. “Thoughts with all @Virgin Galactic and Scaled [partner Scaled Composites]. Thanks for all your messages of support. I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with team,” he tweeted.
George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, told a press conference: “Space is hard and today was a tough day … we are going to get through it.”
The craft, reporters were told, had been using a new fuel formulation which officials said “had been tested on the ground”.
Investigators are likely to focus on this in a bid to establish the cause.
The company’s 700 signed-up customers had also earlier been informed of the switch from a rubber-based solid fuel to a plastic-based propellent for the final series of test flights.
It was stated that a “small nuance” had been made to the aircraft’s motor configuration and that it had been flown a few times in the past.
Television footage from a helicopter over the crash site showed wreckage of the spacecraft lying in two large pieces on the ground, with the Virgin logo visible.
SpaceShipTwo has been under development at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in the desert north-east of Los Angeles. It took off from its base at 9:10am local time (4:19pm GMT).
The company later tweeted: “During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo.”
It would not say what happened other than it was working with authorities to determine the cause of the “accident”.
Virgin Galactic has been the front-runner in the fledgling space-tourism industry. SpaceShipTwo is the second-stage launch vehicle for Virgin Galactic’s space flight programme.
Virgin Galactic said its top concern was the fate of the pilots. In a statement, a spokesman said: “Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today.
“During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo. WhiteKnightTwo landed safely.
“Our first concern is the status of the pilots.”
He added: “We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as soon as possible.”
A spokeswoman for the US Federal Aviation Administration said: “Just after 10am PDT [Pacific daylight time] today, ground controllers at the Mojave spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft.
“Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnight-Two remained airborne. The FAA is investigating.”
Former Nasa astronaut Michael Massimino said the crash brought back memories of the loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003, which disintegrated during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members on board.
He said: “It reminds me of when we lost Columbia. It was a really bad day; bad for everyone involved, particularly the families. It’s a tragedy, it’s a nightmare. When we lost Columbia it was the worst day of my life.”
Hundreds of people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard the spaceship, which is carried to an altitude of about 45,000ft and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to about 62 miles (100km) above Earth, giving passengers a view of the planet set against the blackness of space and a few minutes of weightlessness.
The spaceship is based on a prototype, SpaceShipOne, which ten years ago won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately developed manned spacecraft to fly in space.
Yesterday’s test was to be the spaceship’s first powered test flight since January. In May, Virgin Galactic and spaceship developer Scaled, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp, switched to an alternative plastic type of fuel grain for the hybrid rocket motor.
The crash is a major setback for Virgin Galactic, a US offshoot of Sir Richard’s London-based Virgin Group. SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft is aiming to make the world’s first commercial suborbital space flights.
Other companies developing passenger suborbital spacecraft include XCOR Aerospace, which is building a two-person spaceplane called Lynx, and Blue Origin, a startup company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Virgin Galactic also plans to use its WhiteKnightTwo carrier jets to launch small satellites and payloads into orbit.
The accident is the second this week involving a US space company. On Tuesday, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after lift-off from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS