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Space and Physics

BREAKING: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes In Mojave Desert

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Lisa Winter

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clockOct 31 2014, 18:53 UTC
84 BREAKING: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes In  Mojave Desert
Jeff Foust via WikiMedia Commons

Note: This is a developing story and the article may change with additional information.

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Earlier today, an “in-flight anomaly” during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched space plane by Virgin Galactic, ended with the spaceplane crashing near the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Two pilots were inside the vessel during the flight. California Highway Patrol has confirmed one of the pilots has died, and the other has been injured. The surviving pilot was airlifted from the scene to a local hospital with severe injuries, though the status is not currently known. The crew’s families have been notified, but the pilots’ names and ages have not been released to the public. 

SpaceShipTwo was lifted by the carrier plane WhiteKnightTwo. The pair took off from the runway at 9:19 am PDT. Once the two reached 15.24 kilometers (50,000 feet), SpaceShipTwo was released around 10:10 am PDT, with the anomaly occurring two minutes later. WhiteKnightTwo landed safely, though there has been no comment on what that pilot may or may not have seen during the time.

SpaceShipTwo had successfully completed an unpowered, gliding flight on October 7. Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic reformulated the fuel in an effort to give the space plane more power. The motor has been through four powered flight tests before. This was a first test for the fuel mixture in a powered air test, though it had been tested many times on the ground with no problems.

Today’s events will impact the commercial plans for SpaceShipTwo. The spaceplane was designed to give paying customers a ride to sub-orbital space, with the first passengers expected to lift off in 2015. However, it is not currently known how much today’s setback will affect that timeline. 

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Tickets for the rides will cost $250,000, and hundreds of deposits have already been taken. Some noteworthy ticket holders include Stephen Hawking, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Katy Perry.

Update: 1:30 pm MST: Joel Glenn Brenner, a former reporter with personal ties to the pilots, gave a scathing statement on CNN claiming that even if the test flight test had been successful and the pilot’s life had not been “stolen”, the engine in the SpaceShipTwo never would have been able to make it to space. According to Brenner, there was too big of a gap between their ambitions and existing technology.

“They took this pilot’s life, and that engine still would not have gotten customers to space,” Brenner said. “And I want people to know that now.”

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However, some have criticized Brenner for making premature accusations about Virgin Galactic’s capabilities, and are waiting for the official report before assigning blame. 

Update 2:30 pm MST: Stuart Witt, chief executive at the Mojave Air and Space Port spoke at a press conference this afternoon alongside Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides, President of Scaledd Composites Kevin Mickey, and representatives of the Kern County Fire and Sheriff’s departments. There was no speculation about the cause of the anomaly and subsequent crash.

Each speaker showed gratitude to the first responders who were standing by during the flight test and swiftly took action following the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to arrive Saturday morning to begin the investigation and help determine a game plan going forward.

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Witt spoke of the inherent risks that come from this type of experimental work, and how the people who do it are very enthusiastic about their jobs. These types of situations aren’t easy

“Stay the course. This business is worthy business,” he urged young people moving up through the ranks. “Get involved, be inquisitive. [It is a] cause far greater than any one of us individually.” He equated commercial space travel to Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the globe in 1524.

George Whitesides added that the “primary thoughts are with the crew and family and we’re doing everything we can for them now.” He also noted that billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, was en route to Mojave and is expected to arrive early Saturday.

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“Space is hard and today was a tough day,” Whitesides continued. “We are going to be supporting 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 … to move forward.”


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