Witness: Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket explodes in test flight; 1 dead, officials say

A Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded Friday during a test flight, killing a pilot aboard and seriously injuring another while scattering wreckage in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, witnesses and officials said.

MOJAVE, Calif. — A Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded Friday during a test flight, killing a pilot aboard and seriously injuring another while scattering wreckage in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, witnesses and officials said.

Though the company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson said little publicly other than acknowledging the loss of the craft, Branson tweeted that he was flying to the area “immediately to be with the team.”

Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the crash, told The Associated Press that SpaceShipTwo exploded after a plane designed to take it to high altitude released it and the craft ignited its rocket motor.

Brown said the wreckage fell in the desert north of Mojave Air and Space Port, where the test flight originated. The area is about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

There is one fatality and one major injury, California Highway Patrol Officer Jesse Borne said. One person parachuted out, he said.

SpaceShipTwo, which is typically flown by two pilots, was designed to provide a suborbital thrill ride into space before it returns to Earth as a glider.

Friday’s flight marked the 55th for the spaceship, which was intended to be the first of a line of craft that would open space to paying civilians. At 60 feet long, SpaceShipTwo features two large windows for each of up to six passengers, one on the side and one overhead.

Virgin Galactic — owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000, with full payment due at the time of booking. The company says that “future astronauts,” as it calls customers, have visited Branson’s Caribbean home, Necker Island, and gone through G-force training.

Stephen Hawking, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand are among the celebrities to sign up for flights. Virgin Galactic reports taking deposits totalling more than $80 million from about 700 people.

A related venture, The Spaceship Co., is responsible for building Virgin Galactic’s space vehicles.

During testing for the development of a rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo in July 2007, an explosion at the Mojave spaceport killed three workers and critically injured three others. A California Division of Occupational Safety and Health report said the blast occurred three seconds after the start of a cold-flow test of nitrous oxide — commonly known as laughing gas — which is used in the propulsion system of SpaceShipTwo. The engine was not firing during that test.

Friday’s accident was the second space-related explosion this week.

On Tuesday, an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff from a launch site in Virginia. No injuries were reported that accident, which drew criticism over NASA’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle era

Virgin Galactic planned to launch space tourism flights from the quarter-billion-dollar Spaceport America in southern New Mexico once it finishes developing its rocket ship.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, did not want to comment on the events unfolding Friday in the California desert or what effect they might have on Spaceport America and the future of commercial space travel.

Virgin Galactic is in line to be the main tenant at the spaceport that was built specifically to launch paying customers into space, a dream of Branson’s. His company has repeated pushed back the timetable for when the $250,000 flights were to begin, pointing to delays in development and testing of the rocket ship.

Taxpayers footed the bill to build the state-of-the-art hangar and runway in a remote stretch of desert in southern New Mexico as part of a plan devised by Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Critics have long challenged the state’s investment, questioning whether flights would ever get off the ground.

SpaceShipTwo is based on aerospace design maverick Burt Rutan’s award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004.

Commercial development has been slower than expected. 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.

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