A Virgin Galactic spacecraft intended to carry tourists crashed in the Mojave desert due to an “in-flight anomaly” during a test flight Friday, killing one person, the company said.
The accident, the second this week involving a craft intended for spaceflight, left a trail of debris scattered across the Mojave. It was not known in the immediate aftermath what happened to SpaceShipTwo, but the company said in a statement that “a serious anomaly” had occurred.
“From my eyes and my ears, I detected nothing that appeared abnormal,” Stuart Witt, chief executive of Mojave Air and Space Port, said of the launch during a news conference Friday afternoon. He later added, “If there was a huge explosion that occurred, I didn’t see it.”
The crash was a devastating blow to one of the most high-profile startup space companies, as well as the other people involved in working on such flights.
“We are human. And it hurts,” Witt said.
First responders on the scene found the aircraft “in several different pieces,” said Donny Youngblood, sheriff of Kern County, during the same news conference. They found one person who was declared dead at the scene, and another who had suffered “major injuries” and was taken to Antelope Valley Hospital, he said.
The disaster occurred shortly after 10 a.m., when SpaceShipTwo separated from White Knight Two, which was carrying the vehicle into the air, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
“We’re going to get through it,” George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said during the news conference. “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 vehicle as well as the folks who’ve been working so hard on them to understand this and to move forward, which is what we’ll do.”
Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, posted on Twitter that he would be flying to Mojave:
Earlier Friday, the flight took off from the Mojave Desert, despite some initial concerns about high winds.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic with the goal of making it the world’s first space tourism company. He is the founder of Virgin Group, which has hundreds of companies, including Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America airlines.
“My heart and prayers go out to the pilots of SpaceShipTwo and their families,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “Their courage and bravery to embark on missions that will lead towards expanding man’s reach into space exemplify the ingenuity and imagination of America. Today’s devastating crash is a reminder how fragile life is in these efforts.”
SpaceShipTwo is designed to hold two pilots and six passengers. The company has taken deposits of up to $250,000 each from more than 700 people to reserve seats on the first space tourism flights, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Charles Lurio, publisher of a newsletter about the commercial space industry, the Lurio Report, compared the test-flight explosion to the hundreds of people lost over years of testing early aircraft.
“I hope people understand that in order to make progress in certain areas, you have to take certain risks,” Lurio said. “This is why we need more than one or two companies trying things out, and why we need people willing to test things on the ground. … We need to enable more people to try, not fewer.”
The first flight tests of SpaceShipTwo began in 2013. But at the beginning of this year, the company suspended tests after changing the fuel used to power its rocket, the Albuquerque Journal reported. Earlier this month, it resumed tests and announced that the final phase of testing — which would take the spacecraft into the outer edges of the earth’s atmosphere — would begin soon.
The beginning of commercial service has been continuously pushed back, but the company now says that it could finally become a reality in 2015.
The crash of the spaceship is a huge blow to Virgin Galactic, which had been hoping to be the pioneer of space tourism – selling customers tickets at $250,000 each to ride more than 60 miles above the Earth’s surface, which by conventional definitions is into space, on suborbital flights. The company has been promising for many years that it is getting close to commercial operation, but has faced a series of delays because of technical issues – not an uncommon problem in spaceflight.
SpaceShipTwo was designed by the legendary engineer Burt Rutan, who founded a company, Scaled Composites, in the desert town of Mojave, Calif., near Edwards Air Force Base and in a part of the country known for historic aviation feats – including pilot Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier in 1947. A smaller predecessor to the craft, SpaceShipOne, became the first private spacecraft to reach space in 2004.
The spacecraft was not designed to become an orbital vehicle. It was, however, designed to be entirely reuseable. Whitesides said last year that 650 people had put down money so far for tickets. The original price of $200,000 a seat had risen to $250,000 by that point.
“I hope that we do have competition at some point. Right now there’s not much competition, because it’s hard, it’s hard to build these things, it’s hard to put these operations together,” Whitesides said at the time. He gave a Post reporter a tour of a hangar where spaceship parts were being built, but the spacecraft itself was out of sight in a different hangar.
The design of the eight-seat craft calls for it to be carried by a mothership, the White Knight Two, to a launch altitude more than nine miles above the ground. Then the spaceship is dropped by the carrier vehicle. Soon thereafter, a rocket motor fires and propels the ship into space. It then glides back to Earth and lands on a runway.
“We’re living the dream. Building spaceships!” Whitesides said last year. He noted the competitive, hit-or-miss, entrepreneurial quality to the “New Space” industry and Mojave in particular: “This is like Cupertino 1978,” he said, referring to Silicon Valley. “You’re going to have winners and you’re going to have losers.”
SpaceShipTwo had completed more than 50 test flights, many of them unpowered “glide flights,” but Friday’s was only its fourth powered flight. It was also the first time the space plane’s rocket engine had been started since January.
Virgin Galactic officials said this month that the company had accomplished a series of successful test flights and extended ground tests of the space plane’s rocket motor. They added after one unpowered test that “Today’s flight brings spaceflight closer.”
The explosion could also hurt interest in SpaceShipTwo’s competition. Another suborbital space plane, XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx, is in development and expected to launch from Mojave, with tickets starting at $95,000.
The crash Friday comes just days after the explosion of an unmanned rocket, which blew up seconds after it launched from Wallops Island, Va., on Tuesday night. And it comes 10 years to the month after SpaceShipOne reached a crucial milestone, becoming the first privately built vehicle to fly to the edge of space two times in two weeks. The achievement was marked as a pinnacle of private spaceflight and netted them the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Though both private undertakings, the two accidents this week were linked to two very different types of advanced flight: Antares is a traditional rocket; SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital rocket plane. But both could spark fresh worries over the safety of private manned spaceflight.
John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said: “This will inject a note of sobriety into the enthusiasm of those who would like the spaceflight experience. There was a whole juggernaut of ground training and private spaceports that were being set up to support an emerging space tourism industry, with a collective burst of maybe unrealistic expectations. This will certainly throw cold water on that.”
“It’s going to be very hard to be as optimistic as Mr. Branson has been. He was talking about taking his family on the first flight,” Logsdon added. “Faced with the stark reality that this is still new and unproven technology, I think the enthusiasm will get turned down a notch or two.”
“This was a test flight, and test flights try new things,” Logsdon said. “This was their first attempt to use a new fuel. Sometimes, tests don’t work in catastrophic ways.”
At the Voyager Airport Restaurant, the closest diner to the spaceport, servers were stunned to learn of the explosion. Personnel from across the port, including test pilots, frequented the Voyager for lunch.
“Everyone’s pretty sad right now,” said Blanca Valenzuela, a Voyager hostess. “It was very shocking, just to know that, a few days ago, they were here.”
Joudi Alsaady, owner of the Voyager, said: “It’s very, very sad. We have no idea what the next step will be.” He added, “I guess that’s part of life. If you want to reach the stars, you’ve got to pay the price sometime.”
American crews have accomplished suborbital spaceflight since before going into orbit, but the potential addition of people, particularly private citizens, is still incredibly new.
The Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket was carrying thousands of pounds of food and supplies to the International Space Station when it exploded, a catastrophic event that sent the Dulles, Va.-based company’s stock tumbling but caused no injuries or fatalities.
“The thing that’s important is that we don’t overreact to this failure — that we really understand what occurred, we let the Orbital team run the investigation, we understand what happened, we fix it,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of human exploration and operations, said after the Orbital incident.
Abby Phillip and Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.
[This post has been updated. First published: 2:58 p.m.]