- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2014

A Virgin Galactic rocket plane known as SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Cantill area of the California Mojave desert during a test flight Friday morning, leaving one pilot dead and another injured, the California Highway Patrol reported.

The pilots have not yet been identified, but Virgin reported that its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane landed safely.

“Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today,” the company website’s stated Friday. “During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so.”

SpaceShipTwo launched Friday at 9:19 a.m. PST from the company’s Mojave based Air and Spaceport, nearly a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. After takeoff, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane took 45 minutes to climb 50,000 feet and then finally released SpaceShipTwo.

Onlookers who spotted the craft crumble from the sky reportedly saw a sky-high explosion and later found debris scattered across the desert sand. The Kern County Fire Department that responded to the crash did not answer its communication line.

In the past nine months since the last SpaceShipTwo test flight in January, Virgin Galactic began using a new fuel mixture, changing from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix to enhance its hybrid engine performance, reports indicate.

It is currently unknown whether the new fuel mixture was a contributing factor to the crash. Emails to Virgin Galactic and its Washington-based public relations representatives at Edelman Digital went unanswered.

Billionaire Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Galactic with Aabar Investments PJC of Abu Dhabi, has for several years aimed to sell suborbital commercial flights to passengers that would give them a small taste of space travel by piloting international flights 62 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere, at a price of about $250,000 per seat.

To date, more than 700 prospective passengers have paid for tickets at the quarter-million dollar rate, and the British company has emerged as the leader in the still-blossoming commercial space travel industry.

The crash of SpaceShipTwo is this week’s second private commercial space flight crash. A 133-foot Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station exploded only seconds after launching Tuesday from Wallops Flight Facility along the Virginia coast.

Orbital recently revealed that company controllers at the Wallops Range Control Center engaged the system’s Flight Termination System after an anomaly was detected. Such practices are common with rocket launches when ground controllers have reason to believe a rocket could ultimately crash, but that ensuing debris would cause greater harm if the rocket were to soar over populated areas.

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