LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Virgin’s pioneering tourist-carrying spacecraft crashed on a test flight in California on Friday, killing a pilot and scattering debris across the desert – and raising questions about space tourism’s future.
Television images showed the wreckage of SpaceShipTwo, a test vehicle that flies to the edge of space, amid brush east of Mojave, a few hours’ drive northeast of Los Angeles.
“Space is hard and today was a tough day,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides told reporters at a media briefing a few hours after the crash.
“When we have a mishap from the test community, we find the test community is very small… and we are human, and it hurts,” added Stuart Witt, head of the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The incident is the second disaster involving a US spacecraft this week, after an unmanned Orbital Science rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded after launch on Tuesday.
It is also a huge blow to British tycoon Richard Branson’s long-held dream of offering the first passenger space flights, which have been snapped up by Leonardo DiCaprio and other celebrities.
The Virgin chief said he was heading straight to the site, as the California Highway Patrol confirmed that one pilot had died and another was seriously injured and taken to hospital.
“Thoughts with all virgingalactic … I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team,” he wrote on Twitter. Whitesides later said that the globe-trotting tycoon was due in Mojave by Saturday morning.
The spaceship had been carried aloft on a bigger aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo and then released for a test of its rocket engine above the Mojave desert, the latest in a series of tests.
Witt told reporters that WhiteKnightTwo took off at 9.20 am, and released SpaceShipTwo at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,700 metres), at 10.10 am, after 50 minutes of flight.