Business & Economy

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crash leaves 1 dead, 1 injured

This April 29, 2013 file photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo under rocket power, over Mojave, Calif. On Friday, October 31, 2014, the company reported it had lost the spacecraft in an accident during a test flight that left one crew member dead and another injured.
This April 29, 2013 file photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo under rocket power, over Mojave, Calif. On Friday, October 31, 2014, the company reported it had lost the spacecraft in an accident during a test flight that left one crew member dead and another injured.
Mark Greenberg/AP
This April 29, 2013 file photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo under rocket power, over Mojave, Calif. On Friday, October 31, 2014, the company reported it had lost the spacecraft in an accident during a test flight that left one crew member dead and another injured.
A Kern County Helitack crew is seen at Mojave Air and Space Port after the company reported an unspecified problem during a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket in Mojave, Calif. Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.
Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP
This April 29, 2013 file photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo under rocket power, over Mojave, Calif. On Friday, October 31, 2014, the company reported it had lost the spacecraft in an accident during a test flight that left one crew member dead and another injured.
This Sept. 25, 2013 file photo shows British entrepreneur Richard Branson at the Virgin Galactic hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif. Branson is headed to California's Mojave Desert after a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded and crashed, killing one person and seriously injuring another.
Reed Saxon/AP

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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has crashed in the Mojave Desert, leaving at least one person dead and one injured. The company reported Friday that its in-development space tourism craft had been lost after an accident during a test flight. Reports from a witness to the Associated Press indicate the spacecraft exploded in the air.


4:58 p.m. NASA offers condolences

In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gave condolences while offering words of encouragement.

“On behalf of the entire NASA family, I offer our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the pilot lost in today’s accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and we are praying for a speedy recovery of the other pilot," Bolden said in the statement. “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. 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.”

KPCC staff

Update 4:53 p.m. What this means for space flight industry

The industry now has to grapple with the first flight death of a person in commercial space flight.

"It's a day we were all expecting to come. Frankly, we didn't think it would be this soon," said USC's Greg Autry, who studies the private space industry.

There are both national and California laws designed to help protect companies from liability in private space travel due to the inherent risk, Autry said.

"I think it’s a dramatic setback," Autry said. He added that expects there to be government intervention, which could lead to increased regulation the industry will have to deal with as it tries to continue moving forward.

Commercial space industry consultant Max Vozoff, who works for mv2space, said the industry has been riding a series of successes.

"I think frankly it was inevitable that this or something like this was going to occur at some point," said Vozoff, who didn't see the accident as being as big of a problem. "This is a hiccup. This a bump on the road. The commercial space movement of the last five to seven years is the beginning of a new way of doing space."

Vozoff said that the idea is to keep testing, but that Virgin has a harder task because they use a manned flight system. He said he hopes it's not a big setback for the industry.

While there are protections in place to protect companies from lawsuits, space flight attorney Doug Griffith says that California's protections are "anemic" compared to other states with similar laws.

"California’s statute doesn’t protect the manufacturers of the hardware from liability; it only protects the operator," Griffith said. "And secondly, there is an escape clause in the California statute that doesn’t exist in most of the other state statutes to the effect that the immunity does not apply if the accident was the result of a problem that the operator knew about or should have known about. And I think in the majority of cases, it will be very easy for a skilled plaintiffs' lawyer to establish that any given anomaly was something that the operator at least should have known about if it didn’t know about it."

Sanden Totten with KPCC staff

Updated 3:03 p.m.: Setback for space tourism?

Commercial space tourism suffered a huge setback Friday when a prototype passenger rocket exploded during a test flight, scattering debris over the Mojave Desert and killing one pilot while seriously injuring the other.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo blew apart Friday after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the explosion.

One pilot was killed and one seriously injured in the accident about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. The area is in desert north of Mojave Air and Space Port, where the test flight originated.

British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, has been the front-runner in the fledgling race to send large numbers of paying civilians beyond the atmosphere to give them the feeling of weightlessness and a spectacular view of Earth below. Branson tweeted that he was flying to Mojave immediately.

"I think 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 safely at hand."

After a period of development that lasted far longer than hundreds of prospective passengers had expected, the accident occurred just as it seemed space flights were near.

When Virgin Group licensed the technology from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who funded about $26 million for SpaceShipOne, Branson envisioned operating flights by 2007. In interviews last month, he talked about the first flight being next spring with his son.

SpaceShipTwo, which is typically flown by two pilots, was designed to provide a suborbital thrill ride into space before it returns to Earth as a glider.

Officials said they don't know what caused Friday's accident and had not noticed anything wrong beforehand.

"I detected nothing that appeared abnormal," said Stuart Witt, CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Friday's flight marked the 55th for the spaceship, which was intended to be the first of a line of craft. At 60 feet long,SpaceShipTwo features two large windows for each of up to six passengers, one on the side and one overhead.

Virgin Galactic — owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000, with full payment due at the time of booking. The company says that "future astronauts," as it calls customers, have visited Branson's Caribbean home, Necker Island, and gone through G-force training.

Stephen Hawking, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand are among the celebrities to sign up for flights. Virgin Galactic reports taking deposits totaling more than $80 million from about 700 people.

A related venture, The Spaceship Co., is responsible for building Virgin Galactic's space vehicles.

During testing for the development of a rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo in July 2007, an explosion at the Mojave spaceport killed three workers and critically injured three others. A California Division of Occupational Safety and Health report said the blast occurred three seconds after the start of a cold-flow test of nitrous oxide — commonly known as laughing gas — which is used in the propulsion system of SpaceShipTwo. The engine was not firing during that test.

Friday's accident was the second space-related explosion this week.

On Tuesday, an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff from a launch site in Virginia. No injuries were reported that accident, which drew criticism over NASA's growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle era

Virgin Galactic had planned to launch space tourism flights from the quarter-billion-dollar Spaceport America in southern New Mexico once it finished developing its rocket ship.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, did not want to comment on the events unfolding Friday in the California desert or what effect they might have on Spaceport America and the future of commercial space travel.

Virgin Galactic is in line to be the main tenant at the spaceport that was built specifically to launch paying customers into space, a dream of Branson's. His company has repeated pushed back the timetable for when the $250,000 flights were to begin, pointing to delays in development and testing of the rocket ship.

Taxpayers footed the bill to build the state-of-the-art hangar and runway in a remote stretch of desert in southern New Mexico as part of a plan devised by Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Critics have long challenged the state's investment, questioning whether flights would ever get off the ground.

SpaceShipTwo is based on aerospace design maverick Burt Rutan's award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004.

"It's an enormously sad day for a company," Burt Rutan told The Associated Press in a call from his home in Idaho, where he lives since retiring.

— Associated Press reporters Brian Melley and Justin Pritchard. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. David Koenig in Dallas, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed.

Updated 12:06 p.m.: Crash leaves 1 dead, 1 injured

The California Highway Patrol reports there has been one fatality and one major injury after Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed in the desert Friday, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reports via a witness account that SpaceShipTwo exploded in flight after ignition of  its rocket.

Photographer Ken Brown told AP the space tourism craft was released from the plane that carries it to high altitude, ignited its rocket motor and then exploded.

Virgin said via Twitter that the status of its pilots was still unknown. SpaceShipTwo is typically flown by two pilots, according to AP.

Television footage from CNN showed debris with the Virgin insignia on the desert floor.


WhiteKnightTwo, the "mother ship" that carries the spacecraft to higher altitudes before releasing it to fire off its rockets and ascend even higher, has landed safely, according to the company backed by billionaire Richard Branson.

VirginGalactic has not specified what caused the accident but said it would be working with authorities.

— KPCC staff

Updated 11:48 a.m.: Virgin Galactic reports SpaceShipTwo lost in test flight accident

Virgin Galactic has confirmed via Twitter that it has lost SpaceShipTwo in an accident during a test flight.

White Knight Two

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The company had earlier reported the spacecraft was flying under rocket power over the Mojave Desert when it "experienced an in-flight anomaly."

— KPCC staff

11:36 a.m.: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has in-flight problem

Virgin Galactic has reported an unspecified problem during a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket.

The company tweeted Friday morning that SpaceShipTwo was flying under rocket power and then tweeted that it had "experienced an in-flight anomaly." The tweet said more information would be forthcoming.

Kern County Fire Department reports it is heading to a location in the Mojave Desert. California Highway Patrol Officer Darlena Dotson says the agency is responding to a report of a crash in the Cantil area.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development at Mojave Air and Spaceport in the desert northeast of Los Angeles.

SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by a specially designed jet and then released before igniting its rocket for suborbital thrill ride into space and then a return to Earth as a glider.

— Associated Press