- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - It was a scene that had played out dozens of times: Virgin Galactic’s carrier plane, with its rocket-powered spaceship nestled underneath, taxied onto a runway in the California desert before dawn and prepared to take off.

However, the flight planned for Friday marked a key step, as the company moved to once again power up the rocket after months of development and tweaking.

If all went well, the company planned to move operations early next year to Spaceport America in southern New Mexico for a final round of test flights and then begin commercial flights from the quarter-billion-dollar, taxpayer financed spaceport.

Hopes of that happening anytime soon were dashed Friday when the spaceship exploded, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.

The news spread and saddened officials in New Mexico.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the crew and families and to our friends and colleagues at Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic,” the New Mexico Spaceport Authority said in a statement. “We will continue to work with and lend our support to Virgin Galactic through this tragedy and in the coming months as we move forward.”

Christine Anderson, the authority’s executive director, didn’t want to comment on the explosion over the Mojave Desert or what effect the developments might have on Spaceport America and the future of commercial space travel.

Virgin Galactic is in line to be the main tenant at the state-of-the-art spaceport that was built specifically to launch paying customers into space, a dream of Virgin Galactic founder and British billionaire Richard Branson.

His company has repeatedly pushed back the timetable for when the flights costing $250,000 per person were to begin, pointing to delays in development and testing of the rocket ship.

Taxpayers footed the bill to build the futuristic hangar and runway in a remote stretch of desert southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, as part of a plan devised by Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Critics have long challenged the state’s investment, questioning whether flights would ever get off the ground.

With the planned test of the rocket engine, it appeared Virgin Galactic had been as close as ever to seeing its goals realized.

CEO George Whitesides told The Associated Press during a visit to New Mexico just weeks ago that the company had reached a pair of milestones that included qualification firings for its rocket motor and approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the permit that enabled Virgin Galactic to restart powered flights.

With the motor and crew in place, Whitesides had said the company would soon be moving into the final phase of its test flight program, where it would aim for increasingly higher altitudes for its carrier aircraft and the spaceship.

The testing was eventually going to move to New Mexico, where pilot proficiency would then become the focus. Despite the progress, Whitesides has never said when commercial flights would begin. The biggest challenge, he has said, was going to be the final stage of the test flight program.

“Keep in mind this has never been done before,” he said.

Virgin Galactic has sold over 700 tickets for the space flights, collecting about $90 million in deposits from would-be space tourists.

Scientists and stakeholders in the space industry called Friday’s incident tragic but said such endeavors come with inherent risks.

“No frontier has been won without the risk of life and limb,” said former NASA top space scientist Alan Stern. “I stand with the brave pioneers of space who do this for all mankind.”

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