Updated: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space plane crashes with two pilots on board, one killed

Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight today over the Mojave Desert of Southern California, resulting in its destruction. One pilot is dead and another seriously injured, officials confirmed at a press conference Friday afternoon.

An ABC report showed the plane in pieces on the ground.

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“Space is hard and today was a tough day,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said at the press conference. “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 as well as the folks that have been working so hard on them to understand this and move forward, which is what we’ll do.”

Virgin Galactic has yet to say what exactly caused the plane to fail. Some eye witnesses had reported an explosion, but Mojave Spaceport CEO Stuart Witt, who was at the scene during the crash, did not.

“I detected nothing that appeared abnormal,” Witt said. “I knew (something was wrong) when other things weren’t happening. It was what I was not hearing and not seeing. If there was a huge explosion, it didn’t occur, I didn’t see it.”

SpaceShipTwo is built specifically for carrying six passengers into space while being flown by two pilots. It is launched into sub-orbital flight from the belly of a larger spacecraft called WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo took off from Mojave, Calif., at 9:20 a.m. PT this morning. At 10:10 a.m., it released SpaceShipTwo at 45,000 feet. WhiteKnightTwo then returned safely to the ground. Officials became aware of a problem with SpaceShipTwo at 10:12 a.m.

SpaceShipTwo has flown on its own 34 times in the past. NBC News reported that Virgin Galactic was testing a new type of fuel in the plane:

The reported anomaly came after SpaceShipTwo fired up its rocket engine in flight for the first time in more than nine months. Since then, Virgin Galactic has switched the plane’s fuel mixture from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix — in hopes that the new formulation would boost the hybrid rocket engine’s performance.

Whitesides said the fuel had been tested thoroughly on the ground, and Virgin Galactic did not expect to experience any problems.

Virgin Galactic described the hybrid engine as safer than traditional alternatives because it can be shut down at any time, allowing the pilots to glide without power back to a runway. Non-powered glides have been performed in the past, but it appears that was not an option this time.

Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes it's successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)
Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes it’s successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)

The test flight was carried out by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company owned by Northrop Grumman. It is based out of the Mojave spaceport from where WhiteKnightTwo took off. It employed both of the pilots that were on board.

Virgin Galactic has promised for years to carry anyone who has the money to space as a form of tourism, though it has pushed back its plane’s commercial launch date again and again.

Virgin founder Richard Branson, who plans to be on the first Virgin Galactic flight, tweeted that he was on his way to the crash site:

The incident comes just two days after an Orbital Sciences rocket exploded while carrying cargo to the International Space Station. A SpaceX rocket exploded in August during a test. Both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX triggered their rockets to self-destruct after detecting problems during takeoff.

Despite the tragic event, Witt encouraged young people to take interest in the space industry.

“This business is worthy business. It’s not easy,” Witt said. “It’s a cause far greater than any one of us singularly.”

This story was updated several times as new information emerged, and at 2:30 p.m. after the press conference.