A spacecraft for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Ltd. tourism operator crashed during a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert, and CNBC reported that one of two pilots was killed.
The second pilot was injured, according to CNBC, which cited local police. Television images today showed wreckage from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on the desert floor. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating.
Ground controllers lost contact with SpaceShipTwo just after 10 a.m. local time following the ship’s release from the jet that carried it aloft, an FAA spokesman, Lynn Lunsford, said in a statement. The carrier aircraft remained airborne after the incident, the FAA said.
“We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP,” Virgin Galactic said today in a message posted on its Twitter feed.
The accident is the second this week involving a commercial space venture, following the failed launch of an Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket on Oct. 28 on a supply mission to the International Space Station. Orbital’s rocket didn’t carry any astronauts.
Mojave Air & Space Port, where Virgin Galactic flies its suborbital craft, set a news conference for 5 p.m. New York time. The FAA didn’t give details on either of the pilots, beyond confirming that SpaceShipTwo had two people on board.
Branson said last month that Virgin Galactic was targeting its first commercial flight in spring 2015, with the billionaire and his son to be aboard for the initial launch. That reflected a change from his initial timetable for operations this year. He said at the time that almost 800 would-be space tourists had signed up for $250,000 trips.
Virgin Galactic plans to operate commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company sent the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane to New Mexico last month to aid familiarization with airspace rules in the El Paso area and practice landings and diversions, as well as simulate launches.
The program has suffered numerous setbacks, with three people working for Virgin partner Scaled Composites – now a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp. – killed in an explosion in 2007.
Virgin Galactic – backed by Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments PJS – says it’s still on track to become the world’s first commercial spaceline, having accepted more than $80 million in deposits from a clientele that includes some of the world’s highest net-worth individuals.