Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, part of an ambitious commercial space venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, crashed during testing Friday and broke into several pieces over the Mojave Desert. One test pilot was killed and another was injured.
"Space is hard and today was a tough day," said George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic. “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this. But we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles … to move forward, which is what we'll do.”
The news of the second catastrophic accident in a week has sent tremors throughout the burgeoning commercial space industry and is sure to create questions about its future.
Two pilots were aboard SpaceShipTwo, company and FAA officials confirmed. According to the California Highway Patrol, one of the pilots was able to eject and parachute out of the aircraft before being airlifted to a hospital. The other pilot was killed in the crash. Their names have not been released.
The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which carries the SpaceShipTwo, landed safely. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on their way to the site, which the Kern County Sheriff said was spread over five debris fields over a two- to three-mile area.
The rocket plane was using a new fuel formulation, said Kevin Mickey, CEO of Scaled Composites, which conducted Friday's test flight.
The new fuel mixture had been “tested and proven on the ground many times,” he said.
Virgin Galactic has engaged in a nearly decade-long endeavor to produce the world's first commercial space liner, which would make several trips a day carrying scores of paying customers into space for a brief journey.
announced an agreement in May with the Federal Aviation Administration that helped clear the path to send paying customers on a suborbital flight by setting parameters for how routine missions to space would take place in national airspace.
Friday's test was the company’s first rocket-powered test flight in nine months. Scaled Composites was conducting the test flight in partnership with Virgin Galactic, and its CEO said the flight was using a new fuel formation that had been tested on the ground. In January, SpaceShipTwo reached 71,000 feet -- its highest altitude so far. Virgin Galactic has done its testing for the spacecraft at Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
On Tuesday night, an unmanned rocket exploded just seconds after liftoff from a Virginia launch pad. The $200-million rocket, owned by Orbital Sciences, was carrying supplies to the space station. No one was injured in that explosion.
Virgin Galactic's plans have been repeatedly delayed. Branson said earlier this month at a celebration in Mojave that it was “on the verge” of going to space, but he did not give a time frame. Branson said on Friday via Twitter that he was on his way to California to be with the Virgin Galactic team.
Stuart Witt, CEO and general manager of Mojave Space and Air Port, said he did not see an explosion after the testing team realized there was an "anomaly" a couple minutes after the spaceship separated from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier.
"From my eyes and ears, I detected nothing that appeared abnormal," he said. "If there was a huge explosion, I didn't hear it." He said a 90-second pause led him to think something had gone wrong.
"It's when I wasn't hearing anything that I became concerned," he said.
Virgin Galactic's reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was designed to fly with the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship separates and blasts off. Virgin Galactic has said that when the rocket motor engages, it will power the spaceship to nearly 2,500 mph and take the pilot -- and up to six passengers -- to the edge of space, or more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
Passengers would experience weightlessness at the suborbital altitude and see the curvature of the Earth. The spaceship would reenter the atmosphere and glide back to a runway. The company planned to charge $250,000 for the experience.
NASA sent its condolences to Virgin Galactic on Friday afternoon.
“While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration," a statement said. "Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”
Witt struck a similar note.
“My message to [the industry] is to stay the course. This business is a worthy business. This is not easy. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be interesting to me or any of my colleagues standing with us,” he said.
The idea of Virgin Galactic routinely taking passengers to space this way was developed by retired maverick aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his Mojave company Scaled Composites, which was conducting the test on Friday.
Virgin Galactic said it has accepted more than $80 million in deposits for about 700 reservations made by people who are interested in the ride, including stars such as Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio. Ticket holders also include Jim Clash, a writer and resident of New York City. He reserved his ticket four years ago with a 10% deposit and says he won't be swayed.
“It’s rocket science. It’s dangerous, it’s risky, it’s complicated. Most of us who bought tickets know that,” he said. “I expected there to be accidents. ... I’m very sad and shocked that it was in such a spectacular fashion today, but it’s not going to change my view.”
Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at the Teal Group, said that having twin crashes in a week “could have very serious impact” on attracting investors to the industry.
He said that any time a person dies, it sends the message of how dangerous these ventures are. Virgin will now have a harder time attracting customers, he said. Virgin’s space plane had looked safer than a rocket to the public, he said.
“People will now realize this is space travel,” Caceres said, “and you’re getting into a rocket.”
Michael Blades, senior industry analyst of aerospace and defense at Frost & Sullivan, said the timing is especially bad and Virgin’s crash will indefinitely push back its goal of blasting tourists off into space, which has already suffered a number of delays.
“The passenger thing probably won’t happen this decade,” he said.
Friday's accident was not the first for the program. In 2007, during a test of the spaceship's propulsion system, an explosion at the Mojave Desert airport killed three workers and injured three others.
The blast reminded the public of the risks of rocketry, which had long been the domain of powerful governments rather than small business.
Branson has since built a 68,000-square-foot facility at the space port for a joint venture, called Spaceship Co., to mass-produce its rocket ship and carrier aircraft. It was one of the first aircraft assembly plants to be built in the region in decades.
Mojave Air & Space Port's warren of nearly 100 wind-worn hangars sits just off a desolate stretch of California 14, amid the dusty landscape dotted with sage brush and gnarled Joshua trees.
The 3,300-acre site with a two-mile-long runway has been transformed into an energetic commercial space hub, drawing projects bankrolled by Branson, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen and other aerospace visionaries. It has been called the Silicon Valley of Space.
There are dozens of companies at Mojave Air & Space Port -- most of them aerospace-related -- bringing about hundreds of jobs, many of them young rocket scientists, aerospace engineers and technicians eager to work in the burgeoning commercial space industry.
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.