Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashes in the Mojave

The Virgin Galactic hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port. LAO file photo

One pilot was killed and another injured when Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed in the desert north of the company's base at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave. One of the pilots had managed to parachute from the suborbital passenger craft before it crashed. Witnesses said it exploded in the sky before strewing a debris field over the desert outside California City, in Kern County.

The airplane that carried SpaceShipTwo to altitude landed safely.

Richard Branson, the Virgin venture's founder, said he was en route to California. "Space is hard and today was a tough day," the Virgin Galactic CEO, George Whitesides, told the media.

Friday's test was the first rocket-powered test flight of the SpaceShipTwo since January, when it reached an altitude of 71,000 feet. Reuters, citing the FAA, reported that the failure occurred after the spaceship separated from jet that carried it aloft for its high-altitude launch.

It's the second high-profile failure this week for the private spaceflight industry. Orbital Sciences Corp lost one of its rockets in an explosion just above the launchpad in Virginia.

Reuters on the Virgin Galactic craft:

The back-to-back accidents dealt a considerable blow to the fledgling commercial space launch industry, which has been taking on more work traditionally done by the U.S. government while expanding for-profit space markets, including tourism….

More than 800 people have paid or put down deposits to eventually fly aboard the spaceship, which is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released by Virgin's White Knight Two carrier jet airplane. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to about 62 miles (100 km) above Earth, giving passengers a view of the planet set against the blackness of space and a few minutes of weightlessness.

The vehicle is based on a prototype, SpaceShipOne, which 10 years ago won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for becoming the first privately developed manned spacecraft to fly in space.

"During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo," Virgin said in a statement, adding: "We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP."

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