Oct. 31, 2014
— SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's private suborbital spaceplane, was lost in flight on Friday morning (Oct. 31), during a test of a new hybrid rocket engine. Of the two pilots who were onboard the winged craft, one was killed and the other was seriously injured, officials said.
The identities of the pilots were not immediately released. The Kern County Sheriff's Office stated the the surviving pilot suffered "moderate to severe" injuries and had been taken to a nearby hospital.
"The vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo," Virgin Galactic officials sad in a statement that was released shortly after the two-pilot and six-passenger seat craft crashed in the Mojave desert in California sometime after 10 a.m. PDT (1700 GMT).
Footage from helicopters flying over the area afterwards showed large pieces of debris from the rocketplane strewn across the desert floor. The video also showed a large red and white parachute of the type that the pilot who survived may have used to eject.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, mounted under its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, readies for flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 31, 2014. (Scaled/Jason DiVenere)
"We are human, and it hurts," said Stuart Witt, CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the flight originated and was planned to return. "Our hearts, thoughts, prayers are absolutely with the families of the victims."
Spectators watching the flight from the ground reported that SpaceShipTwo appeared to break apart after dropping as normal from its carrier aircraft, the WhiteKnightTwo and then briefly firing its hybrid rocket motor. This was the first in-flight test for a new polyamide-based fuel grain engine, which previously had only been ignited on the ground.
"We have done a lot of development tests over the years, but what we've been doing recently are qualification tests where you're firing the same motor design multiple times to make sure you're seeing the same thing every time," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told Space.com earlier this month. "So now we feel ready to put that motor on the spaceship."
The flight marked SpaceShipTwo's 55th time airborne and 35th test flying free of the WhiteKnightTwo. It was just the fourth time that the spacecraft fired its liquid and solid fuel engine in flight.
Telescopic view of Virgin Galactic's first supersonic test flight of SpaceShipTwo in April 2013. (MarsScientific.com/Clay Center/VG)
"Of the numerous challenges Virgin Galactic has faced and overcome in our unprecedented mission to create the world's first spaceline, the greatest engineering challenge has been to develop the world's largest operational hybrid rocket motor to power SpaceShipTwo and its occupants safely, regularly and efficiently to space," Whitesides said in May.
Virgin Galactic confirmed that the WhiteKnightTwo landed safely.
In development by Scaled Composites, LLC, a division of Northrop Grumman, since 2004, SpaceShipTwo was being tested in preparation for its long-anticipated first attempt at reaching space by the end of the year. Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic as a part of his larger Virgin Group of companies, recently said he expected to fly with his son aboard SpaceShipTwo during its first commercial spaceflight in early 2015.
"Thoughts with all at Virgin Galactic and Scaled," Branson wrote Friday on Twitter. "I'm flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team."
More than 700 people have purchased tickets to fly on SpaceShipTwo, paying as much as $250,000 per seat.
Debris from the SpaceShipTwo "VSS Enterprise" fell down on the Mojave desert after the vehicle broke apart in flight. (ABC23 TV)
Prior to Friday's flight, SpaceShipTwo made a successful glide test on Oct. 7, taking off and landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The pilots for that flight were Scaled Composites' Peter Siebold and Virgin Galactic's Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, who is a former NASA astronaut.
Witt said that both the injured and killed pilots were Scaled employees.
The vehicle lost Friday, christened the "VSS Enterprise," was the only complete SpaceShipTwo in Virgin Galactic's fleet. A second ship has been partially constructed by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic's air- and spacecraft manufacturing division.
SpaceShipTwo is based on the design of SpaceShipOne, the Scaled Composites' craft that claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize in October 2004. That smaller vehicle flew three times above 62 miles altitude (100 kilometers), the international borderline between Earth and space, before it was donated for permanent exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Photographs captured SpaceShipTwo breaking apart after firing its new hybrid rocket engine. (Kenneth Brown/USA Today)