Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic crashes, crew member killed

Tragedy is big blow to Richard Branson's space tourism venture which is part-owned by Aabar Investments
Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic crashes, crew member killed
(Image Courtesy: Virgin Galactic)
By Reuters
Sat 01 Nov 2014 02:13 AM

(Updated: Saturday, November 1, 19:40) Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson on
Saturday vowed to find out what caused his space tourism company's passenger
spaceship to crash during a test flight, killing one pilot and injuring the
other, but expressed a desire to press on with the dream of commercial space
flight.

Michael Alsbury, 39, has been identified as the
pilot who died in the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, and the surviving
pilot is Peter Siebold, 43, the Kern County Sheriff's Office said in a
statement.

Branson arrived in California's Mojave Desert to
meet his Virgin Galactic team and federal officials who were opening their
investigation into Friday's accident, the second in less than a week involving
a commercial space company.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo went down during a
powered test flight, scattering debris over the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150
km) north of Los Angeles.

"We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly
what went wrong," Branson said during a news conference in Mojave.

"If we can overcome it, we will make
absolutely certain that the dream lives on," he said.

Alsbury, who a sheriff's spokesman said was from
Tehachapi, California, was a project engineer and test pilot at Scaled
Composites, a Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary that built and designed the
spacecraft for Virgin Galactic.

He was flying for the ninth time aboard
SpaceShipTwo, including serving as the co-pilot on the vehicle's first
rocket-powered test flight on April 29, 2013, according to his biography on the
company's website.

He was found dead in the aircraft, Kern County
Sheriff Donny Youngblood said on Friday.

Siebold parachuted from SpaceShipTwo and was found
a mile from the fuselage, Youngblood said. He had moderate to major injuries
and was taken by helicopter to Antelope Valley Hospital, the Sheriff's Office
said in a statement.

Siebold had been the pilot alongside Alsbury on
SpaceShipTwo's maiden test flight last year, according to Scaled Composites.

A team of investigators from the National
Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site on Saturday to begin
piecing together what led to the accident.

"This was a test flight, and test flights are
typically very well documented in terms of data," said Christopher Hart,
acting chairman of the NTSB. "We may have lots of evidence that will help
us with the investigative process," he said.

Friday's crash was the second disaster in less than
a week suffered by a private space company, dealing a blow to the fledgling
commercial space industry that has been taking on work traditionally done by
governments.

On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by
Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia,
destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

The Virgin probe will likely will focus on
SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine, which on Friday was flying with a new type of
fuel for the first time, experts said.

The solid plastic-type propellant is ignited by
nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas.

Virgin Galactic announced in May that it was
replacing the rubber-based propellant used during the spaceship's three
previous rocket-powered test flights to get better performance.

"We’ve tested both of these fuel grains a
lot,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides told Reuters at the
time.

Before Friday’s flight, SpaceShipTwo's last powered
test flight was in January, though the rocket and its new propellant had passed
multiple ground tests.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture part-owned by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, is a US offshoot of the
London-based Virgin Group founded by Branson, one of the world's most famous
entrepreneurs whose business empire ranges from airlines to music stores and
mobiles phones.

Friday’s accident marked the fourth fatality in
Scaled’s SpaceShipTwo development effort. In 2007, a fuel tank exploded,
killing three Scaled employees.

"While not a NASA mission, the pain of this
(new)tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives
to exploration," NASA, the US space agency, said in a statement.

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