Space & Innovation

SpaceShipTwo Pilots Named; Branson Vows to 'Move Forward Together'

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has arrived in the Mojave Desert, Calif., in the wake of the tragic explosion and crash of the company's SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Continue reading →

Updated at 10:45 p.m. EDT Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has arrived in the Mojave Desert, Calif., in the wake of the tragic explosion and crash of the company's SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

The rocket-propelled space plane was completely destroyed Friday morning during a test flight. One of the two test pilots, employed by SpaceShipTwo development company Scaled Composites, was killed and the second pilot was rushed to a local hospital where he is described as having "moderate to major injuries."

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A spokeswoman for Kern County Coroner's Office told the Los Angeles Times that project engineer and test pilot Michael Alsbury died in the accident. Alsbury was 39-years-old and had been working with Scaled for 14 years. The second pilot, who was able to parachute to safety, has been named by Scaled Composites as Peter Siebold. BBC News reports that Siebold, 43, is "alert and talking with his family and doctors."

"In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short," Branson told reporters in Mojave on Saturday. "We will now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward together.

"We do understand the risks involved and we're not going to push on blindly. To do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy"

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Alsbury was an experienced test pilot, notching up 1,800 hours of test flights, most of them with Scaled. He was also the co-pilot with Mark Stucky when SpaceShipTwo carried out its first rocket-powered supersonic flight in April 2013.

Alsbury's loss has reverberated around the small test pilot community. "When we have a mishap from the test community, we find that the test community is very small. And we are human. And it hurts," said Stuart Witt, CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port, on Friday.

The SpaceShipTwo vehicle is designed to carry 6 fee-paying tourists and two pilots during commercial operations. Before Friday's incident, the first flight was planned for next year. This plan will undoubtedly be postponed as the investigation gets underway.

A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have now arrived at the scene to assess what went wrong during the test flight. This is the first spacecraft-related incident the NTSB has taken the lead in investigating.

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"This'll be the first time we have been in the lead of (an investigation of) a space launch that involved persons on board," said NTSB chairman Christopher Hart. "Because this has some new aspects for us, we wanted to make sure we covered all the bases."

However, NTSB team members assisted with the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, he added.

It is evident from photographs taken of SpaceShipTwo shortly after it was released from mothership WhiteKnightTwo during Friday's test that an explosion occurred after the vehicle's rocket engine was ignited. The space plane quickly disintegrated, scattering debris over a 3-square-mile area of desert. The Kern County Sheriff Department has secured the debris field so investigators can study the wreckage.

Attention is currently focused on the change in rocket fuel formula that is used by SpaceShipTwo's hybrid rocket engine. In May, Scaled engineers decided to switch from a rubber-based propellent to a plastic-based propellent to optimize performance - yesterday was the first time the new mixture was used in flight. (Update 11/03: not-cause-fatal-crash-141103.htm">Investigators suspect that early deployment of SpaceShipTwo's feathering system, not the vehicle's engine, may have triggered the inflight disintegration.)

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During a post-crash press conference on Friday, Kevin Mickey, President of Scaled Composites, emphasized that thorough tests had been carried out on the ground before the new formula was flown. "We were flying a rocket motor today that had been thoroughly tested on the ground and had gone through a qualification series, so we expected no anomalies with the motor today," he said. "This was a new fuel formulation that had been proven in testing on the ground many times."

Although spaceflight analysts are eying the engine as the cause for the catastrophic failure in-flight, we will have to wait and see what the NTSB investigators uncover.

This is the first major in-flight incident to befall any private space tourism company and the worst tragedy to hit Scaled Composites since the 2007 rocket test explosion that killed 3 employees and injured another 3. That incident occurred during early oxidizer flow tests of SpaceShipTwo's systems at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The SpaceShipTwo accident was the second commercial spaceflight loss of last week. On Tuesday, an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket exploded shortly after lift-off from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket was supposed to carry 2.5 tons of supplies, equipment and experiments to the International Space Station as part of its $1.9 billion contract with NASA. An investigation is currently under way as to what caused the launch anomaly.

Sadly, the SpaceShipTwo incident claimed the life of one pilot and seriously hurt another, whereas no casualties were reported from the unmanned Antares launch.

Sources: LA Times, SPACE.com, BBC News

NTSB investigators inspect the SpaceShipTwo wreckage with Virgin Galactic pilot Todd Ericson.

On April 29, 2013, Virgin Galactic took a huge step toward suborbital spaceflight -- the six-person SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket engine for the first time in flight, accelerating it to supersonic speeds. Richard Branson called the test "critical." Seen here, WhiteKnightTwo -- SpaceShipTwo's mothership -- taxis along the airstrip at California's Mojave Air ans Space Port shortly before takeoff at 7 a.m. PST.

At an altitude of 46,000 ft, WhiteKnightTwo released the spaceship -- manned by a three-person test crew including Virgin Galactic's lead pilot David Mackay.

Shortly after release, the spaceship's rocket engine lit up, accelerating the vehicle faster than sound.

The rocket engine fired for 16 seconds during the landmark flight test. "It looked stunning," Richard Branson told Discovery News shortly after the test.

A telescopic view from the ground highlights the bright exhaust from the SpaceShipTwo's single RocketMotorTwo.

A tail-mounted camera captures an intimate look at the RocketMotorTwo's nozzle -- signatures of the ground crew can be seen on the nozzle.

Richard Branson celebrates the successful flight test with 'Forger' a.k.a. Mark Stucky.

Burt Rutan congratulates Branson after the successful supersonic test flight.

More test flights of SpaceShipTwo are expected, and the first space tourism flights will likely take place in 2014.