Crash, pilot’s death hit home for commercial space industry
Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson heads back into a hangar after expressing condolences to the families of the pilots during a news conference at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The pilot was killed and a co-pilot was injured in the crash of SpaceShipTwo.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrive before dawn Saturday at the Mojave Air and Space Port.(Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images)
At first glance, this dusty desert town hardly looks like a 21st century hub of technology and innovation. Besides a Denny’s and a couple of fast food spots, there are dozens of boarded-up businesses, a few cheap hotels and a liquor store whose sign advertises both ice and ammo.
But a few blocks from the main highway, at the bustling Mojave Air and Space Port, hundreds of young aviation engineers, test pilots and technicians have created a commercial aerospace and aviation center making waves around the world.
Bitter wind rustled the flag flying at half staff outside the airport Saturday as the tiny town began coping with the crash of the homegrown Virgin Galactic rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo fell to the desert floor on Friday, killing 39-year-old test pilot Michael Alsbury.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board started combing through the wreckage, and Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flew in to support the company’s hundreds of grieving and anxious workers.
Branson vowed Saturday to continue his quest to carry tourists into space.
“We do understand the risks involved, and we’re not going to push on blindly,” Branson said. “To do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy.”
The crash, which left the experimental SpaceShipTwo in pieces, was the second disaster in a week for the commercial space industry. On Tuesday, an unmanned rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station exploded just after liftoff off the coast of Virginia. No one was injured.
Branson praised the courage of SpaceShipTwo’s test pilots, who he said had put their lives on the line to help advance space travel. Alsbury was a father of two who had logged more than 1,800 hours of flight time. His body was found in the wreckage of the main fuselage, authorities said.
Surviving pilot Peter Siebold, 43, suffered a shoulder injury and was “alert and talking with his family and doctors,” according to Scaled Composites, the company that designed SpaceShipTwo.
The test pilots — and hundreds of other aerospace workers — are a fixture in Mojave, whose economy is built around the industry and nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
Stuart Witt, the space port’s chief executive, said he had been too busy consoling people to notice that someone had lowered the flag in Alsbury’s honor.
“We got gut-punched yesterday,” Witt said, tearing up at the pilot’s name.
Witt, a former Navy Top Gun pilot, said the crash would not derail the dozens of start-up companies that have turned the town into a groundbreaking hub for the commercial space industry.
“We’ll move on,” he said. “That’s who we are.”
Much of the investigation is expected to focus around SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine, which is designed to propel the craft to more than 60 miles above Earth.
Since April 2009, Virgin Galactic had used a hybrid rocket motor built by Sierra Nevada Corp., a Sparks, Nev., company that has contracts with the U.S. military, NASA and commercial space firms.
The engine, fueled by nitrous oxide and a rubber compound, had been fired in flight and on the ground about 50 times. SpaceShipTwo had three successful test flights powered by the Sierra Nevada-built engine.
However, in May, Virgin Galactic announced it was switching to a plastic-based rocket fuel. It is not clear when testing began, but Scaled Composites said on its website that there had been 10 test fires since May.
Friday’s test flight was the first in which SpaceShip Two used a motor with the plastic-based fuel.
Executives said after the crash that the new motor and fuel had been thoroughly tested on the ground before Friday.
Witt was at the airport Friday watching as the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft took off after 9 a.m., lifting SpaceShipTwo into the sky. He noticed a problem with the rocket plane shortly after it blasted off from the carrier. Pictures shot by a local photographer showed the plane breaking apart.
The NTSB said it had assigned a dozen investigators to the crash. This marks the first time the agency has led an investigation of a space launch with people on board, acting Chairman Christopher Hart said.
Hart said at a news conference Saturday night that investigators had found the wreckage spread over five miles.
“When the wreckage is dispersed like that it indicates an in-flight breakup,” he said. But why the spaceship broke apart is not clear, he said.
Investigators will investigate the scene for four to seven days, but a final report is expected to take as long as a year, he said.
Branson said he would fully cooperate with the investigation and was “determined to learn from this and move forward together,” he said.
He said the company had adhered to rigorous testing standards “precisely to ensure that this never happens to the public.”
Alsbury had worked for Virgin Galactic partner Scaled Composites for 14 years as a project engineer and test pilot. In April 2013, he served as co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first rocket-powered flight. The aircraft broke the sound barrier, reaching Mach 1.2, and climbed to about 56,000 feet. The entire flight lasted a little more than 10 minutes and ended with a smooth landing in Mojave.
Alsbury was married and had a young son and daughter, said a family neighbor, Patricia Kinn. Their community, in the nearby town of Tehachapi, was horrified by news of the crash, she said.
“I know all the neighbors feel the same way,” Kinn said, speaking through tears. “They all know that he was a wonderful person, family man, humble, and he was a great dad.”
Kinn said Alsbury and many of her neighbors worked in the aerospace community, either at a military facility or in Mojave. Alsbury was a constant presence in the neighborhood, often seen walking his dog or playing with his children, Kinn said.
“He loved what he did, his work,” she said. “I believe he was very proud of it.”
Kinn said neighbors had spoken briefly with Alsbury’s wife and that the community planned to rally around the family.
“The kids, I think they understand, but they don’t. They’re still young,” she said. “It’s hard for his wife, and this neighborhood is devastated from it.”
News that SpaceShipTwo was destroyed spread quickly.
Katie Stokes said she was at home when her mother, a fabricator at the Mojave facility, sent her a text message: “Katie, you need to pray right now …"
Stokes first thought there had been a family emergency. She quickly realized the message was about the crash.
“This is a close-knit community,” Stokes said. “We feel the general pain of the workers and of the family.”
“Did I know them? Should I have known them? All those things passed through my mind,” she said.
Marlena Rowley, a nursing school student, was at the airport Friday morning and watched WhiteKnightTwo take off.
“It’s a sad day,” she said. “This accident touches the lives of the pilots, the community members and leaders and the commercial space industry as a whole.”
Times staff writers Christine Mai-Duc, Julie Westfall, James Queally, Ralph Vartabedian and Shan Li in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Twitter: @melodypetersen @LATvives @wjhenn
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