Test rocket explosion is setback to space tourism
Mojave, Calif. – — A winged spaceship designed to take tourists on excursions beyond Earth's atmosphere exploded during a test flight Friday over the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot in the second fiery setback for commercial space travel in less than a week.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo blew apart after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the explosion.
One pilot was found dead inside the spacecraft, which fell from the sky about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Another pilot parachuted out and was flown by helicopter to a hospital, said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
The crash area is in the desert north of Mojave Air and Space Port, where the test flight originated.
The crash was the second catastrophe in the commercial space industry in a week. 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
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 was flying to Mojave and expected to arrive Saturday, as were investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board.
"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."
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.
Friday's flight marked the 55th for SpaceShipTwo, which was intended to be the first of a line of craft. But this was only the fourth flight to be powered by a rocket. During the other flights, the craft was either not released from its mother ship or it functioned as a glider.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known. One difference on this flight was the type of fuel being used.
In May, Virgin Galactic announced that SpaceShipTwo would switch to a polymide-based fuel — a type of thermoplastic. It had been fueled with a type of rubber called HTPB.