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SpaceShipTwo destroyed during test flight, one dead

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Nov 1, 2014, 2:39 UTC

Sen—SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital passenger vehicle, was destroyed during a test flight on Friday, killing one pilot and seriously injuring a second.

The names of the pilots, employed by SpaceShipTwo manufacturer Scaled Composites, were not immediately released.

The cause of the accident, the second this week for a U.S. commercial space company, is under investigation.

“Our primary thoughts at this moment are with the crew and family and were doing everything we can for them now," Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said during a televised press conference at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Friday afternoon.

The spaceship, attached to its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, took off from the Mojave Air And Space Port in Mojave, Calif., at 12:20 p.m. EDT. About 50 minutes later at an altitude of about 50,000 miles, SpaceShipTwo was released for what was expected to be its first powered test flight since January.

Speaking to reporters, spaceport chief executive Stu Witt said he realized something was wrong about two minutes later. Initially, “I detected nothing that appeared abnormal,” Witt said. “It wasn’t because something did happen, it was what I was not hearing and not seeing. If there was a huge explosion, I didn’t see it.”

SpaceShipTwo was flying for the first time with a new fuel grain in its hybrid rocket motor. Virgin Galactic in May announced a switch to a polyamide-based plastic that had been extensively tested on the ground.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident.

SpaceShipTwo is an air-launched vehicle being developed by Mojave, Calif-based Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic. It is based on a prototype called SpaceShipOne, which 10 years ago won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for becoming the first privately developed manned spacecraft to fly in space.

Virgin Galactic has sold about 800 tickets to passengers wanting to experience a few minutes of microgravity and glimpse Earth against the blackness of space. Tickets cost $250,000.

The accident is the second this week by a U.S. space company. On Tuesday, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

B-Roll of the SpaceShipTwo Crash Scene in Mojave, Calif. Video credit: NTSB