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Safety inspectors in California have cited Scaled Composites for being at fault for the explosion that killed three employees at their Mojave Air and Space Port. The explosion occurred in July 2007 and stunned the X-Prize winning company. They now face a maximum fine of $25,310.
Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composite company has been going from strength to strength in recent years. In 2004 the company was successful at launching their SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 114km, claiming the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Since this historic win, Rutan has formed a powerful alliance with British businessman Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Branson is currently heading the construction of the world’s first Space Port in the New Mexico desert, using SpaceShipOne’s successor, the larger SpaceShipTwo, as the principal craft to take 6 people into space. Stowed under a WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, SpaceShipTwo is designed for a conventional take-off until the pair are at approximately 15 km in altitude. At this point, the pair separate, allowing SpaceShipTwo to accelerate to 2500 mph by firing its single hybrid rocket engine. Weightlessness will be achieved, giving space tourists an idea of what it feels like to be in a low Earth orbit.
Tragically, three personnel working on the Scaled Composites site in the Mojave Desert last July were killed in an accident during tests involving a rocket propellant. The report from safety officials state that the company failed to provide “effective information and training of the health and physical hazards associated with nitrous oxide,” the fuel used to power the rockets. Since the incident safety measures have been stepped up and it is hoped that this sad event won’t delay the 2009 launch of the first space tourism flights by Virgin Galactic.