Saturday, November 1, 2014

Virgin crash probe 'may take a year'

The head of the US transport safety agency has said the investigation into the Virgin Galactic spacecraft crash in California's Mojave Desert could take up to 12 months.

Christopher Hart said Virgin Galactic would be able conduct further test flights while the investigation took place.

SpaceShipTwo broke up in mid-air during a test flight on Friday.

One of the pilots was killed and the other injured.

Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson says he is 'determined to find out what went wrong' and learn from the tragedy.

The US National Transportation Safety Board team had completed its first full day of investigation, Mr Hart said, and would be examining evidence at the scene for four to seven days.

He said the craft's debris was spread over an area measuring five miles from end to end.

He told a news conference the test flight had been 'heavily documented' and his team would have to trawl through 'extensive data' - which was why the full investigation could take up to a year.

The co-pilot who died when SpaceShipTwo disintegrated shortly after take-off was named as 39-year-old Michael Alsbury. The pilot was identified as Peter Siebold.

Scaled Composites, the company both pilots worked for, said Mr Siebold, 43, was 'alert and talking with his family and doctors'.

Mr Hart said his team were waiting for doctors to allow them to interview Mr Siebold.

'A massive setback'

Speaking earlier at the at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the craft was being developed, Sir Richard said 'nobody underestimates the risks involved in space travel'.

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

'It's a horrible day for Virgin Galactic and for commercial space travel. It's a massive setback,' Sir Richard told the BBC.

He said the company had to pick itself up, find out what went wrong and see whether they can fix it. 'I'm hopeful we'll be able to overcome the problems,' he added.

Michael Alsbury

  • Aged 39

  • Married with two children

  • 15 years of flying experience

  • First flew in SpaceShipTwo in 2010

  • Flew craft's first rocket-powered run in April 2013

Peter Siebold

  • Aged 43

  • Married with two children

  • Received pilot's licence when just 16

  • Started working for Scaled Composites in 1996

  • Had spent 2,000 hours in 35 different fixed-wing aircraft

Investigations will be hoping to find some indication of what went wrong from the many sources of visual information on the incident.

Mr Hart said there were six cameras on the craft itself, with another three on its launcher, an aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo. However, he added that it was unclear whether SpaceShipTwo's cameras had been located.

The spacecraft was flying its first test flight for nine months when it crashed near the town of Bakersfield.

Virgin Galactic said SpaceShipTwo had experienced 'a serious anomaly' after it separated from WhiteKnightTwo.

The space craft was using a new type of rocket fuel never before used in flight, although officials said it had undergone extensive ground testing.

David Shukman, BBC science editor

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?