Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes During Test Flight

Another setback for commercial space ventures, the second this week and this time with tragic consequences.

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two Crash

SpaceShipTwo, the craft that British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hoped to be the basis for passenger air travel into Earth orbit, crashed today in California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight:

SpaceShipTwo, a rocket plane that is to carry tourists on a short ride to space, crashed in the Mojave Desert on Friday during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots.

The other pilot, who was able to eject from the space plane, was taken to a nearby hospital with “moderate to major injuries,” said Ray Pruitt, the public information officer for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company created by Richard Branson, acknowledged the accident on Twitter.

“During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo,” the company reported.

The test flight, the plane’s first under its own power since January and the first since a switch to a new motor, was conducted by Scaled Composites, the designer and builder of SpaceShipTwo.

More from the Associated Press:

Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the crash, told The Associated Press that SpaceShipTwo exploded after a plane designed to take it to a higher altitude released it and the craft ignited its rocket motor.

Brown said the wreckage fell in the desert north of Mojave Air and Space Port, where the test flight originated. The area is about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

There is one fatality and one major injury, California Highway Patrol Officer Jesse Borne said. One person parachuted out, he said.

SpaceShipTwo, which is typically flown by two pilots, was designed to provide a suborbital thrill ride into space before it returns to Earth as a glider.

(…)

Virgin Galactic, once it finished developing its rocket ship, was going to launch space tourism flights from the quarter-billion-dollar Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, did not want to comment on the events unfolding Friday in the California desert or what effect they might have on Spaceport America and the future of commercial space travel.

Virgin Galactic is in line to be the main tenant at the spaceport that was built specifically to launch paying customers into space, a dream of Branson. His company has repeated pushed back the timetable for when the $250,000 flights were to begin, pointing to delays in development and testing of the rocket ship.

Here’s an artists conception of what the space plane would look if it did get into orbit:

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two

As Wired notes, this was the 55th time that SpaceShip Two had flown, and the 35th time it had flown on its own. However, it was only the fourth time that the ship was supposed to fly under its own power and the first test flight since a major change had been made in the fuel being used in the ship’s engine involving a change from a rubber-based fuel to a plastic-based fuel, although it is unknown at this time obviously if that change had anything to do with what happened. During the live coverage of the crash this afternoon on CNN, Joel Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter who had gotten quite extensive inside access to the project as part of a planned writing project, said that the ship’s engines had fired, stalled, and then the ship exploded immediately after the engine had been reignited, so that obviously is going to be a focus of the investigation going forward that will, of course, will involve not only Virgin but also the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and possibly also NASA given that this was intended at some point to be a space vehicle.

In addition to her comments about what happened today, Brenner had some provocative and accusatory comments about what happened, and her observations about the Virgin Galactic program based on her observation, including her opinion that the engine design never would have succeeded in getting anyone into space never mind a spacecraft filled with paying customers.

Here’s one video of the comments she made on CNN this afternoon, captured by Hot Air’s Noah Rothman:

And here’s more from the same interview via CNN:

Obviously, Brenner was close to the pilots involved in this crash and you can clearly hear the emotion in her voice in both videos, so she may not be entirely dispassionate and objective. That being said, if what she’s relating is true than this could be a major headache for Virgin and Branson, and could be the end of this particular business venture of his. To be honest, though, I have always been skeptical of this program. From the beginning, it seemed like another one of Sir Richard Branson’s vanity projects except that, this time, he was proposing to take others along with him on his adventure, and adventure that, as we have learned throughout the long history of manned spaceflight, can be uniquely dangerous given everything that could potentially go wrong at any given moment. The idea that this would become a viable business of some kind seems to me to be as much of a pipe dream give current technology as the idea that Christa McAuliffe being the first teacher in space would be the beginning of a real “civilians in space” program, and we all know how that particular venture turned out. In any case, there will be investigations for some time to come and, at the very least, this will be a major setback for a venture that, most recently, Branson had said would lead to the craft’s very first trip into orbit by the beginning of 2015. At this point, after all, Virgin Galactic does not have a replacement craft for the one that was destroyed today. There is apparently a second craft under construction, but nothing will happen with that space plane until the investigation of this crash is completed and the cause diagnosed. For her part, Brenner says that she thinks that this is the end of Virgin Galactic. Branson, however, is likely to continue to insist that things will continue moving forward, but whether that happens will be due largely to factors beyond his control.

Photo via KABC-TV

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Per aspera ad astra (“A rough road leads to the stars”)

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Bad week for private sector space-flight.
    It’s too bad.
    But it gives you an idea of the cojones those guys had sitting in the Apollo capsules on top of a Saturn Rocket carrying 203,400 gals of kerosene and 318,000 gals of liquid oxygen…and making making 7,648,000 pounds of thrust.

  3. In addition to her comments about what happened today, Brenner had some provocative and accusatory comments about what happened, and her observations about the Virgin Galactic program based on her observation, including her opinion that the engine design never would have succeeded in getting anyone into space never mind a spacecraft filled with paying customers.

    An opinion based, no doubt, on the extensive education in aerospace engineering one gets at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    …sitting in the Apollo capsules on top of a Saturn Rocket

    With, as they remarked, every piece of them made by the lowest bidder. As you say, big ones.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    A somber occasion to be sure.

    It should remind us that privatized space exploration projects is subject to the same high risks as public-sector space exploration ventures.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Considering that a rocket is nothing more than a controlled explosion, this doesn’t surprise me. There are going to be accidents, and problems. Is the risk worth it? Yes.

  7. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: So that really, really rich guys can pay Branson tons of money for a high-tech roller coaster ride? Color me skeptical.

    On the other hand, that surplus capital has to go somewhere–better outer space than, say, higher wages for working people. They’ll just waste it on food and stuff.

  8. Grewgills says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:
    Cars and air travel used to be for the very wealthy. This moves space travel a step closer to being for everybody and that is, I think, a good thing. It’s not like Branson or his potential clients were weighing doing this or giving the money to charity anyway.

  9. Stonetools says:

    As far as space based business models are concerned, I have read books on the topic by Jerry Pournelle and Harry Stine. They mentioned space colonies, factories in lower earth orbit producing exotic materials, solar power satellites, asteroid mining, and earth to space elevators. No one mentioned space tourism.
    I think a huge problem for space colonization folks is that so far, there really is no good business reason for colonizing space as yet beyond satellites for communications and earth monitoring. I hope someone finds one. I doubt space tourism is it.

  10. CB says:

    @grumpy realist:

    That’s why I disagree with Doug. This may be a vanity project, but it’s an invaluable vanity project. Those test pilots deserve the utmost praise.

  11. ernieyeball says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:..better outer space than, say, higher wages for working people.

    Would you please ‘splain how Branson not doing this would provide “higher wages for working people.”

  12. James Pearce says:

    The idea that this would become a viable business of some kind seems to me to be as much of a pipe dream give current technology as the idea that Christa McAuliffe being the first teacher in space would be the beginning of a real “civilians in space” program,

    I admit to sometimes taking the same dim view. Man in space? Are you kidding me?

    But then I wonder if it’s just the economics of the venture that’s making it difficult. We put men on the moon in an era far less technologically advanced so we know it’s doable. We just haven’t been able to organize the earthbound side of things to make it worth our while. It’s not the sky keeping us down.

    It’s ourselves.

  13. Tony W says:

    Was reading this morning that the ground crew had to deliberately push the self-destruct button. It is used to keep the rocket from bursting into populated areas.

    Man, what a tough call that would be – blowing up your buddy to save thousands…..

  14. Mark Matis says:

    @ernieyeball: It’s somewhat difficult for him to do so while he’s on his knees brewin’ that fresh hot black tea. I’m sure that DWS can feed him the talking points, however, so he can spew them when he comes up for air.

  15. rudderpedals says:

    @Tony W: I heard the same regarding the range safety command on the NASA news conference earlier in the week for the SpaceX incident but not Virgin’s. That really sucks.

  16. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @ernieyeball: I didn’t realize that I was creating an either/or continuum here. I was simply proposing that there were other ways to deal with surplus capital.

    I’m sorry that I stepped on your pipe dream of visiting the outer atmosphere some day. Carry on.

    @Mark Matis: Did my reply meet your wet dreams? I try really hard, but, after all, I AM just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker, you know.

  17. Tony W says:

    @rudderpedals: I may have been confused, can’t find my reference. Either way – a difficult day for all.

  18. ernieyeball says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: I’m sorry that I stepped on your pipe dream of visiting the outer atmosphere some day. Carry on.

    As Felix so timely pointed out above you should never AssUMe anything.
    My pipe dreams go more like this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf5nCPFBSHw