Saturday, November 1, 2014

Virgin crash investigation begins

US investigators are beginning a probe into why a Virgin Galactic space rocket crashed over California's Mojave desert on a test flight.

One pilot died and the other was badly injured when SpaceShipTwo exploded shortly after take-off on Friday.

A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived in Mojave on Saturday and was heading to the crash site.

Earlier, Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson vowed to continue his space tourism venture despite the crash.

Sir Richard, founder of Virgin Group and long-time advocate of commercial space travel, said he was 'shocked and saddened' but would 'persevere'.

Virgin had hoped to launch commercially in 2015. It has already taken more than 700 flight bookings at $250,000 (£156,000) each, with Mr Branson pledging to travel on the first flight.

'Serious anomaly'

SpaceShipTwo was flying its first test flight for nine months when it crashed shortly after take-off near the town of Bakersfield, California.

In a statement, the company said SpaceShipTwo experienced 'a serious anomaly' after the craft separated from its launcher, an aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo landed safely.

It later emerged that the space craft was burning a new type of of rocket fuel never before used in flight, although officials said it had undergone extensive ground testing.

Sir Richard said Virgin Galactic would co-operate fully with the authorities involved in the investigation - the NTSB and also the Federal Aviation Administration.

'Space is hard'

In a blog post, Sir Richard said everyone involved in the project was 'deeply saddened'.

'All our thoughts are with the families of everyone affected by this tragic event,' he wrote.

He said that he was flying to California, describing it as 'one of the most difficult trips I have ever had to make'.

'Space is hard - but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together,' he added.

David Shukman, BBC science editor

Even as details emerge of what went wrong, this is clearly a massive setback to a company hoping to pioneer a new industry of space tourism. Confidence is everything and this will not encourage the long list of celebrity and millionaire customers waiting for their first flight.

An innovative design combined with a new type of rocket motor make the development exceptionally hard. Despite an endless series of delays to its spacecraft, Virgin Galactic has over the years managed to maintain some very optimistic public relations and positive media coverage.

I interviewed Sir Richard Branson when he first announced the venture, and his enthusiasm and determination were undoubted. But his most recent promises of launching the first passenger trip by the end of this year had already started to look unrealistic some months ago.

This accident will delay plans even further. Space is never easy, and making it routine is even harder.

Will crash set back space tourism?