Virgin Galactic suffers fatal crash – during a test flight over the Mojave Desert today, Virgin Galactic‘s spaceship suffered a “serious anomaly” and apparently broke up at altitude with two pilots on-board.
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 9:20 am PDT, with release of the SpaceShipTwo craft at 10:10 am. At 10:12 am, ground controllers became aware of an in-flight anomaly and implemented their prearranged response plan.
First responders were dispatched to a location 25 miles north of the airport, where rescue helicopters responded to a pilot who has successfully parachuted from the plane but had experienced significant injuries. That pilot, who has not been named, was transported by medical helicopter to the Antelope Valley Hospital in Lawrence, California. Kevin Mickey, chief executive of Scaled Composites the company operating SpaceShipTwo today, said in a press conference that the pilot was doing “as well as can be expected.”
The second pilot was deceased, according to Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
Parts of the spacecraft were scattered over a large area of the desert. Executives with Scaled Composites, which operates the spacecraft, and with Virgin Galactic, refused to speculate as to possible causes of the accident.
Local authorities from the Kern County Fire Department are conducting search and rescue operations. Virgin Galactic issued a terse statement saying it “will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident” and promised to provide updates as they are available.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is en route to Mojave.
Both the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating, and a NTSB “Go Team” is expected to be on the ground by tomorrow morning. The initial investigation and recovery operations are expected to take several days.
This was the 55th flight for SpaceShipTwo and the 35th time the vehicle flew on its own, detaching from the airplane that carries it airborne. It was only the fourth time SpaceShipTwo had actually fired its on-board rocket, and the first test flight for a new polyamide-based rocket fuel-effectively a plastic-based fuel rather than the rubber-based fuel that had been used previously. The company said the polyamide-based fuel had been successfully tested numerous times on the ground.
Joel Glenn Brenner, a journalist speaking on CNN today, said that the SpaceShipTwo rocket engine appeared to have burned for two seconds after ignition and then stopped in what appears to have been a hard start. The vehicle engine then restarted and exploded.
The mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, landed safely following the incident.
The first concern of everyone involved is the status of the pilots and one pilot has been taken to the hospital with serious injuries. Their families have been notified, but their names are not being released at this time.
At takeoff, SpaceShipTwo hangs beneath a double-hulled carrier plane named WhiteKnightTwo, which resembles a catamaran. WhiteKnightTwo flies up to roughly 50,000 feet before dropping SpaceShipTwo, which then fires up its own rocket engine to fly vertically, out of the atmosphere.
Because the space plane broke up at a very high altitude, the debris field will be widely scattered across the desert making the reconstruction of the aircraft particularly difficult.
“Space is hard, today was a tough day,” says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “But, we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying the vehicle as well as the folks working so hard on them, to understand this and to move forward. Which is what we’ll do.”
Space flight is inherently risky and today’s flight was part of a long and careful sequence of testing before Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flights that were tentatively scheduled for some time in 2015.
Local authorities are securing the crash site and debris field as best they can, and the investigation is ongoing.
Another press conference will be held Saturday morning following the arrival of the NTSB investigators.