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Co-pilot killed in Virgin Galactic spaceship crash

(Agencies) Updated: 2014-11-01 10:07

Co-pilot killed in Virgin Galactic spaceship crash

A piece of debris is seen near the scene of the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo near Cantil, California October 31, 2014. A passenger spaceship being developed by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company crashed during a test flight on Friday near the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other, officials said. [Photo/Agencies]


MOJAVE, Calif - A passenger spaceship being developed by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company crashed during a test flight on Friday near the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other, officials said.

The crash of the suborbital vehicle, undergoing its first powered test flight since January over the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles, came days after another private space company, Orbital Sciences Corp, lost a rocket in an explosion moments after liftoff in Virginia.

The back-to-back accidents dealt a blow to the fledgling commercial space launch industry, which has been taking on more work traditionally done by the U.S. government while expanding for-profit space markets, including tourism.

Television footage of the Virgin Galactic crash site showed wreckage of the spacecraft lying in two large pieces on the ground, and the company said the spacecraft was destroyed. Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said a debris field was spread over more than a mile.

One pilot was killed in the crash and his body was found in the wreckage, while the second pilot, who ejected and parachuted to the ground, survived with serious injuries, Youngblood said. The survivor was found more than a mile from the main wreckage, he said.

Both crew members were test pilots for Scaled Composites, the Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary that designed and built the spacecraft for Virgin and lost three other employees in a July 2007 ground test accident.

Friday's crash occurred shortly after the craft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, separated from the jet airplane that carried it aloft for its high-altitude launch, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Scaled Composites President Kevin Mickey told a news conference the ill-fated flight was the first using a new rocket fuel formula the company switched to in May. He said that formula "had been proven and tested on the ground" before Friday's test launch.

Stuart Witt, chief executive of the space port, recounted observing what appeared to be the plume from the initial firing of the spacecraft's rocket as it was released from the mothership, an indication that engine ignition had been achieved. But he said officials were not ready to speculate on the cause of the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending one of its "go-teams" to investigate.

Branson said via Twitter that he was on his way to Mojave following the crash. "Thoughts with all @virgingalactic & Scaled," he tweeted. George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said he expected Branson to arrive on Saturday.

"Space is hard, and today was a tough day. We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today, and we're going to get through it," he told a news conference at the space port.

Paying customers must wait

More than 800 people have paid or put down deposits to eventually fly aboard the spaceship, which is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released by Virgin's White Knight Two carrier jet airplane.

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