Virgin Galactic Spaceship Crashes; Co-Pilot Reported Dead

By and | October 31, 2014

A spacecraft for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Ltd. tourism operator crashed during a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot.

The pilot ejected and suffered “moderate to major injuries,” Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt said today. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board said they were investigating. Television images showed wreckage scattered on the desert floor.

Ground controllers lost contact with the SpaceShipTwo just after 10 a.m. local time following the rocket ship’s release from the WhiteKnightTwo jet that carried it aloft, said an FAA spokesman, Lynn Lunsford. The Associated Press cited a photographer who saw the crash as saying that SpaceShipTwo exploded after being dropped by the carrier aircraft.

While the dawning of a second U.S. space age has generated a buzz because of the involvement of billionaires such as Branson, Elon Musk, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos, the loss of a second private craft this week served as a reminder that the risks haven’t diminished with time.

“There is a price to be paid for a whole new era of a very complex and risky business,” said Marco Caceres, director of space studies for Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group. “A lot of money is going to be lost and people are going to die. If you want to develop this industry any time soon, you have to take some risks, and that means flying a lot.

Briefing Planned

Mojave Air & Space Port, where Virgin Galactic flies its suborbital craft, set a news conference for 5 p.m. New York time. The FAA didn’t give details on either of the pilots, beyond confirming that SpaceShipTwo had two people on board.

“Thanks for all your messages of support,” Branson said in a message on his Twitter feed. “I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team.”

This week’s accidents are drawing attention to one of the drawbacks of slashing spending on the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and giving entities beholden to investors a greater role in orbital and suborbital flight, Caceres said. Companies aren’t flying dozens of test flights before attempting missions, as NASA did during the 1960s and 1970s, Caceres said.

Orbital’s Failure

The Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket that blew up on a Virginia launch pad Oct. 28 had only flown two test flights before ferrying its first load of cargo to the International Space Station earlier this year.

“That’s not nearly enough,” Caceres said.

SpaceShipTwo was designed to make the first stage of its flight to the fringes of space while slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo. Virgin uses the carrier plane to take the spacecraft to almost 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). From there, the rocket-powered craft is to climb to 360,000 feet, letting passengers experience weightlessness, dark skies and view the curvature of the Earth.

Aircraft Manufacturer

Scaled Composites, a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp., makes SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo, which the company bills as the world’s largest all-composite aircraft. The jet has a 140- foot wingspan that links together two narrow fuselages and is powered by four Pratt & Whitney engines.

Jim Hart, a spokesman for Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman, said the company had no immediate comment on the accident.

Branson said last month that Virgin Galactic was targeting its first commercial flight in spring 2015, with the billionaire and his son to be aboard for the initial launch. That reflected a change from his initial timetable for operations this year. He said at the time that almost 800 would-be space tourists had signed up for $250,000 trips.

Virgin Galactic plans to operate commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company sent the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane to New Mexico last month to aid familiarization with airspace rules in the El Paso, Texas, area and practice landings and diversions, as well as simulate launches.

The program has suffered numerous setbacks, with three people working for Scaled Composites killed in an explosion in 2007.

Virgin Galactic — backed by Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments PJS — says it’s still on track to become the world’s first commercial spaceline, having accepted more than $80 million in deposits from a clientele that includes some of the world’s highest net-worth individuals.

–With assistance from Christopher Jasper in London and Jennifer Kaplan in New York.

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