Blog Post

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.

“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.

7 Responses to “Updated: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space plane crashes with two pilots on board, one killed”

  1. Jules Verne

    I find the attitude and comments of Mr. Branson and his Space Port CEO; Stuart Witt, VERY disheartening and annoying. Branson did not offer ANY condolences to the family & friends of the dead pilot nor did he mention the poor man’s name. It is as though Branson thinks of his “employees” as easily disposed of or replaceable chattel. All he really cares about is his products and telling the public that he will find out why his damn plane exploded with no mention of the loss of life of his pilot. This reeks of the REPULSIVE, INHUMAN, MONEY AS GOD, big business, corporate attitude towards people in general – all people are there to be exploited for profit ….. when people like Branson already have more than enough money for several lifetimes. Mr. Witt’s comment is WITLESS. All he could say is that “if there was a huge explosion, it didn’t occur, I didn’t see it”. This is when there are photos & video of the plane EXPLODING all over the news! PATHETIC! This sort of IGNORANCE is painful to witness.

  2. Will Buckley

    Surprised there is no information on how the second pilot survived such a devastating crash. Did they parachute? How did they survive the impact from 45,000 feet?

  3. bearman85

    Hi All
    I don’t know for sure but I keep hearing that they just changed there type of fuel. I didn’t hear that they did any real testing with that fuel. I hope they did because if they didn’t test the fuel at least a couple of times that is sad. I still have about 20 years before I have enough money for a ride. Maybe in 10 years they will come down in there price and I will be able to go. What a thrill it would be. I know they will find out what went wrong and fix it. That I am sure of. It is a bad set back but they will go on and us regular folks will get to go into or close to space. I don’t care about the weightless feeling I just want to look back on earth and see what a great looking place we live on. God Bless all who have tried and all who have failed I love them all.

    God Bless

  4. bearman85

    It’s a shame that we have to lose a life but it happens when you do things like trying to fly close to or into space. Even NASA has lost life , so don’t be hard on the Virgin people. These things are bound to happen. I am sorry for the pilot who lost his life and the one who was badly hurt. Life will go on and regular people may still get to fly into or near space and we may lose more pilots before we get there but they do know the dangers of being a test pilot. You may think I am heart less but it is the truth. Life will go on, don’t be hard on me for speaking the truth. I still am sorry a life had to be lost , but it is a danger to be a test pilot.

    • Indeed. The pursuit of exploration is not without it’s hard-fought challenges or goals. I’ll take an excerpt from a speech I once heard;

      “But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the
      control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of
      this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented,
      capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced,
      fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment
      needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission,
      to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at
      speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun
      –almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this
      decade is out–then we must be bold.”

      The exploration of space, in order to be privatized – can and will have setbacks not unlike the Antares explosion, and the SpaceX incident as of late. My prayers go out to those two families tonight, and to the eventual return and continuation of private spaceflight into LEO, and exploration on NASA’s behalf onto Mars.