Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Crashes in Mojave Desert; One Killed, One Injured

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Crashes in Mojave Desert; One Killed, One Injured

SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched spaceplane designed to take passengers into space on suborbital journeys, crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight today (October 31, 2014).  Two pilots were aboard.  One died.  The second was taken to a hospital and his condition is unknown.  Their names have not been released.

SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and built by Scaled Composites.  Scaled developed the original SpaceShipOne that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for making two flights within seven days of a reusable spaceplane above 100 kilometers, an altitude that is internationally recognized as the boundary between air and space (there is no legal definition of that boundary).

Both pilots aboard SS2 today worked for Scaled according to that company’s president, Kevin Mickey.  He spoke at a press conference this afternoon, but declined to identify the pilots by name or provide any information about their ages, training or years of experience.  He said only that Scaled employs a team of test pilots who have significant training.  The surviving pilot parachuted down according to Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s goal is to enable anyone able to afford a ticket to travel into space, even if only for a few minutes.  The price is about $250,000 and more than 700 people reportedly have signed up.  Getting to the point of flying passengers has taken much longer than expected, however.  Initially commercial flights were planned by 2007, but that date slipped repeatedly.  Most recently, Branson said the first passenger flight would be in early 2015.

Today’s accident surely will delay any such flights.   The only question is by how many months or years.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is sending a “go” team to investigate the accident.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also is investigating.

SS2 is coupled to an aircraft (“mothership”), WhiteKnightTwo, for ascent to about 45,000 feet altitude.  It then drops away and ignites its rocket engine for the flight to space.  It does not go into orbit.  Instead, it reaches the apex of its arc and then flies back to land on Earth.

The FAA said the failure today began shortly after SS2 separated from WhiteKnightTwo, but exactly what happened must await the investigation.

Eyewitness reports often conflict, and that is true in this case.  What is known for certain is that WhiteKnightTwo and SS2 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 9:20 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) and everything was normal until SS2 dropped away at 10:10 am PDT.

Doug Messier, author of the Parabolic Arc website, was at Mojave and witnessed what happened.   According to his account, tweeted (@spacecom) in real time, SS2 “blew up.  Came down in pieces.”

Conversely, Stuart Witt, Chief Executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port, said at this afternoon’s press conference that he was watching the flight from the ground and there was no explosion.  What alerted him was not what he saw or heard, but what he did NOT see or hear.  There was a “pause” of about 90 seconds after separation, he said, and that is when he began to suspect a problem.

After the press conference, Messier tweeted that he had spoken with a photographer who was photographing the flight and “Pictures show Engine fired fine, then there’s a white plume.  He [the photographer] thinks the nitrous oxide tank blew.”

This was the 55th flight of SS2, but only four of those, including today’s, were in powered flight and this was the first powered flight since January.  It also was the first using a new plastic-based fuel, replacing a rubber-based fuel.  Speculation is centering on the new fuel as a potential cause of the accident.   Mickey tried to deflect such suspicion at today’s press conference, stressing that the fuel had been “thoroughly tested” on the ground and no anomalies were expected during the test flight.

Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said at the press conference that “space is hard and today was a tough day,” but “we’re going to get through it.”   Whitesides added that Richard Branson was on his way to Mojave and was expected in the morning.  Branson tweeted that he is “flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team” and added later on the company’s website that “Space is hard – but worth it.  We will persevere and move forward together.”

Witt said another press conference would take place tomorrow (Saturday) in late morning or early afternoon PDT.

SS2 is an entirely commercial endeavor that does not involve NASA.  However, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement that “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.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively, offered their condolences to “the entire Virgin Galactic family.”  Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Science and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, similarly offered his condolences and said he is “confident” that “we will learn” from the investigation of this accident and an unrelated failure of a commercial Antares rocket on Tuesday and take steps to prevent their recurrence.  Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents the district that includes Mojave and is the House Majority Leader, said that the “devastating crash is a reminder how fragile life is in these efforts” but he is confident Virgin Galactic and authorities are “working diligently” to learn about what caused the crash.

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