Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Crashed During A Mojave Test Flight [Updated]

This is not shaping up to be a good week for commercial spaceflight


Virgin Galactic

There’s a growing, looming shadow over the private spaceflight industry this year. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital rocket designed for tourists, crashed on Friday, Oct. 31 due to an “in-flight anomaly" during a powered test flight over the Mojave Desert.

Although the company hasn’t specified what anomaly caused the fatal failure, multiple on-the-ground reports indicate it happened shortly after SpaceShipTwo detached from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier craft and ignited a newer, plastic-based rocket fuel.

The incident marks this week's second high-profile disaster for the private spaceflight industry, following the explosion of Orbital's Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on Tuesday.

See below for the latest updates to this story.

UPDATE 7: 11:27 a.m. on Nov. 2, 2014

Scaled Composites named the test pilot who died in the SpaceShipTwo crash as Michael Alsbury. For 14 years, Alsbury worked as a test pilot and project engineer for Scaled Composites. He'd flown on SpaceShipTwo before, co-piloting the craft when it broke the sound barrier on its first rocket powered flight in April of 2013. Alsbury was 39.

Kern County sheriff identified the surviving pilot as Peter Siebold. It is not yet known how Siebold escaped the vehicle, but he parachuted to safety and is receiving medical care for a shoulder injury.

On Friday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden released the following statement:

On behalf of the entire NASA family, I offer our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the pilot lost in today’s accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and we are praying for a speedy recovery of the other pilot. While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration. Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.

UPDATE 6: 1:28 p.m. on Nov. 1, 2014

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, gave the following statement during a press conference in the Mojave Desert:

This is a very tough time for all of us at Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Scaled Composites, and our thoughts remain with the families of the brave Scaled pilots, and all those affected by this tragedy.

We are determined to find out what went wrong and are working with the authorities to get that information. It is too early for me to add any details of the investigation at this stage. We have always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project.

We have been undertaking a comprehensive testing program for many years and safety has always been our number one priority. This is the biggest test program ever carried out in commercial aviation history, precisely to ensure this never happens to the public.

The bravery of test pilots generally cannot be overstated. Nobody underestimates the risks involved in space travel. Commander Chris Hadfield is amongst those who has sent moving notes of support, in which he highlighted the nature of space projects. He wrote: ‘As a former test pilot, crashes and even deaths were frequent. It is a known part of the business. Little solace, but reality. Pushing the bounds of knowledge and possibility comes with unavoidable risk.’

In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short. We will now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward together as a company.

We have been touched by the overwhelming support coming from not just the space community but the world at large. If I could hug every single person who has sent messages of love, support and understanding over the past day, I would. The space community sticks together, and there have been touching messages of solidarity from NASA, X PRIZE, our customers, the media, the Virgin family and many, many thousand members of the public inspired by the vision of commercial space travel.

We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly – to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy. We are going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance, and then move forwards together.

I truly believe that humanity’s greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain. This team is a group of the bravest, brightest, most determined and most resilient people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. We are determined to honour the bravery of the pilots and teams here by learning from this tragedy. Only then can we move forward, united behind a collective desire to push the boundaries of human endeavour.

UPDATE 5: 5:24 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2014

Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites just held a press conference regarding the SpaceShipTwo crash. Representatives for the companies did not release the names of the pilots, the number of flights SpaceShipTwo has flown before, or what they think caused the malfunction. However, they did say that they would be cooperating fully with the National Transportation Safety Board to determine what went wrong.

The conference did end on a hopeful note regarding the importance of pursuing commercial spaceflight: "Stay the course; this business is a worthy business. This business is not easy. If it was easy, it wouldn't be interesting," "I equate it to the Magellan mission," said Stuart Witt, the chief executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

UPDATE 4: 4:01 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2014

Joel Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter, did a telephone interview with CNN, talking about her experiences with Virgin Galactic. Brenner has been covering the company and is currently writing a book about SpaceShipOne. She had a few harsh words to say about the readiness of the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. "This engine that exploded today, even if they had had a successful flight and even if they had not stolen my friend's life, they would not have ever gotten anywhere near space with this engine," said Brenner.

She also went on to say that the crash of SpaceShipTwo marks a huge setback for Virgin Galactic . "They do not have any vehicle anywhere near completion. This really marks the end for what they can do."

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is reportedly en route to the Mojave Space Port.

Thoughts with all @virgingalactic & Scaled, thanks for all your messages of support. I'm flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team. — Richard Branson (@richardbranson) October 31, 2014

According to Spaceflight Now, first responders to the scene indicated that there was wreckage from a crashed aircraft. Eye witnesses also report seeing the explosion and subsequent debris.

We drove to one of the debris sites. Debris from the ship was scattered all over the road. @VirginGalactic #SpaceShipTwo — (@spacecom) October 31, 2014

It’s assumed that two pilots were aboard SpaceShipTwo, as most test flights of the spacecraft include two pilots. ABC7 reports that one person was taken away from the scene on a stretcher.

RT @ABC7: #SpaceShipTwo UPDATE: Rescue crew seen carrying person on stretcher to chopper — Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) October 31, 2014

Designed for space tourism, SpaceShipTwo is the followup to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne, which was the winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. Powered by a rocket motor, it is meant to take passengers to the edge of space and then glide back down to Earth, landing on a runway like a plane. In May 2014, Virgin Galactic announced that SpaceShipTwo would be switching fuel types for its rocket engine -- utilizing a plastic-based propellant rather than a rubber-based one.

UPDATE 3: 3:44 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2014

The FAA has released an official statement about the incident:

"Just after 10 a.m. PDT today, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft. Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. The FAA is investigating. Please contact Scaled Composites about the condition of the crew members."

UPDATE 2: 3:17 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2014

The FAA announced that airspace "from the surface up to and including 12000 feet" is closed to provide a safe environment for rescue. Local news from Bakersfield revealed what the crash site looks like:

A Piece Of SpaceShipTwo Wreckage

screenshot, ABC

The California Highway Patrol has an update on the pilots:

BREAKING: California Highway Patrol reports 1 fatality, 1 major injury after SpaceShipTwo accident. — The Associated Press (@AP) October 31, 2014

UPDATE 1: 3:05 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2014

Virgin Galactic just released a statement to NBC News:

"Virgin Galactic's partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today. During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so."

The WhiteKnightTwo is a cargo aircraft used to lift the SpaceShipTwo.