Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashes during test flight

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 04:10 PM EDT, 10/31/14 CBS Space Update: Virgin Galactic's SpacePlaneTwo crashes during test flight
  • Updated at 09:20 PM EDT, 10/31/14: Adding quotes and details from news conference; NASA statement
CBS News

Virgin Galactic's futuristic SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, built to carry adventurous tourists out of the atmosphere for brief sub-orbital spaceflights, suffered a catastrophic failure Friday during a rocket-powered test flight high above the Mojave Desert, destroying the spacecraft, killing one pilot and injuring another.

It was a devastating setback for Virgin Galactic and the company's plans to begin launching wealthy tourists into space next year, sending shock waves through the commercial space industry just three days after a rocket built in a commercial venture with NASA to resupply the International Space Station exploded seconds after launch from Virginia.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, nestled below the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port Friday, shortly before takeoff on a test flight. The spacecraft broke apart during powered flight and crashed to Earth, killing one pilot and injuring another. (Credit: Jason DiVenere/Scaled Composites)

"FBut the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo ship was unmanned. SpaceShipTwo carried a crew of two, both test pilots with spacecraft-builder Scaled Composites. Only one survived.

"Space is hard, and today was a tough day," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic. "We are going to support the investigation as we figure out what happened today, and we're going to get through it.

"The future rests, in many ways, on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles, as well as the folks who have been working so hard on them, to understand this and to move forward, which is what we'll do."

Said Stuart Witt, CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port: "We are human, and it hurts."

"Our hearts, thoughts, prayers are absolutely with the families and the victims," he said. "We do know that one of the crew members was met by emergency responders, treated on the scene, and transported to Antelope Valley Hospital. We also know we had one fatality."

It was not immediately known what might have gone wrong or even whether there was an observable explosion. But a catastrophic malfunction occurred shortly after the spacecraft's hybrid rocket engine ignited, triggering an in-flight break up. It was the first powered test flight for SpaceShipTwo in nine months and the first using a motor with a different fuel mixture.

Kevin Mickey, president of Scaled Composites, said the motor had been "thoroughly tested" on the ground and that "we expected no problems with the motor today."

The disaster was an unexpected blow to Virgin Galactic's team and its charismatic owner, Sir Richard Branson, who had hoped to begin commercial sub-orbital flights to the edge of space starting early next year. Instead, Branson headed for California Friday, saying in a tweet "I'm flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team."

How the crash might impact Virgin's long-range plans is not yet known, but commercial flights undoubtedly will be put on hold indefinitely pending the outcome of a failure investigation to figure out what went wrong and what might be required to restore confidence in the spaceplane technology.

Unlike Orbital Science's Antares rocket, which was funded in large part by NASA and subject to government oversight, Virgin Galactic's program is a purely private venture with no government involvement beyond FAA licensing and permitting. Weathering a storm of publicity and a possible crisis of confidence among potential customers -- hundreds have made down payments on tickets at some $250,000 per seat -- could prove as tough a challenge as correcting the technical problem that triggered the failure.

"I’m deeply saddened by the loss of one of the pilots on today's test flight," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida. "This has been a tragic week for our commercial space sector. But I’m confident that we will learn from the investigations of these two accidents and take steps to prevent them from happening again."

But in the near term, Whitesides said, "our primary thoughts at this moment are with the crew and family, and we're doing everything we can for them now. ... We're also thinking of the team members that we have at the companies that have been working on this program."]

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden offered "deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the pilot lost in today’s accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and we are praying for a speedy recovery of the other pilot."

"While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration," he said." Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement."

Virgin's twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo carrier jet, with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane attached to its belly, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., northeast of Los Angeles at 12:20 p.m. EDT (GMT-4). The carrier plane typically lifts the spacecraft to an altitude of some 50,000 feet before releasing it to fly on its own.

The deploy altitude reached Friday was not immediately known, but Witt said SpaceShipTwo was dropped at 1:10 p.m.

Virgin Galactic tweeted the drop and ignition of the spaceplane's hybrid rocket motor:

-- Everyday is fun when you work at a spaceport, but test flight days are always special. #SpaceShipTwo & WhiteKnightTwo heading to the runway.

-- As usual, we'll be tweeting out lie updates of today's #SpaceShipTwo test flight, so stay tuned for more!

-- We're hoping for a Halloween treat, but the weather might be playing tricks. We'll keep you posted.

-- And we have takeoff for WhiteKnightTwo & #SpaceShipTwo here in Mojave, CA. This is SS2s 55th flight and WK2's 173rd.

-- We're still closely tracking the weather -- mainly winds on the ground and aloft. Stay tuned for updates.

-- #SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo earlier today. Both are airborne now. Photo: Scaled Composites/Jason DiVenere (note: photo appended below)

-- #SpaceShipTwo has been released by WhiteKnightTwo, and is now flying freely for the 35th time.

-- Ignition! #SpaceShipTwo is flying under rocket power again. Stay tuned for updates.

Then, a few moments later: "#SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly. Additional info and statement forthcoming."

Witnesses reported via Twitter that the spaceplane appeared to blow up, or come apart in the air, shortly after engine ignition. Local emergency crews quickly headed to multiple debris sites, reporting large pieces of wreckage on the ground. Views from a news helicopter showed one of the rocket plane's tail booms resting on the desert floor.

"Virgin Galactic's partner (spacecraft-builder) Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today," Virgin said in a statement. "During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely.

"Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so."

SpaceShipTwo's design is based on Burt Rutan's smaller single-seat SpaceShipOne, which became the first privately funded spacecraft to fly above 100 kilometers -- the accepted definition of where "space" begins -- in 2004. SpaceShipTwo is a scaled-up version of the rocket plane that can carry a crew of two and four to six passengers.

Built by Scaled Composites, the spacecraft is not capable of reaching orbit. It is a purely private venture and there is no NASA or other U.S. government involvement other than FAA licensing. But Virgin Galactic is the centerpiece of a new push to "commercialize" space travel, the first private company to offer trips out of the atmosphere that are open to private citizens.

"This just demonstrates how hard spaceflight really is," said John "Danny" Olivas, a former shuttle astronaut who serves as a mission assurance and flight safety consultant. One of his shuttle crewmates was C.J. Sturckow, now one of Virgin Galactic's test pilots. Olivas said Sturckow was not aboard the rocketplane.

"Because of the complexities associated with spaceflight, whether you're sub-orbital or go into orbit, there's an intrinsic amount of risk associated with that because the requirements to make any of that happen require so much power. Let's face it, we've been doing this for 50 years but our flight experience is relatively low.

"I hate to say this, but I kind of knew there was a day that was going to be coming where there was a major accident like this and I was hoping it was going to be later rather than sooner. But ultimately, the success of the industry really depends on our ability as a nation to do what we need to do to power through it, to learn what we can, to fix it and move on."

He said the Virgin team had been "working really hard to deal with things like thrust oscillation issues with their engine. This is one of the reasons they changed the design for this particular flight as I understand it. The question is, what are they going to do to track down what went wrong?"