Update: One Survivor, One Fatality in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Flight Accident

Officials from Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have confirmed one of the pilots was killed and another was injured in a major anomaly during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo today (Friday, October 31). The names of the pilots have not yet been released. During a hastily-called press conference, officials said launch of the WhiteKnightTwo plane carrying SpaceShipTwo occurred at 9:20 am PDT this morning and at 10:10 am, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) was released for its test flight to the edge of the atmosphere and space. Two minutes into its flight, SpaceShipTwo encountered an anomaly. Officials had no immediate cause but the rocket motor is the first point of concern.

During the press conference, it was stated that the rocket motor called RocketMotorTwo (RM2) had itself been flown in four previous flights but this was the first flight of version 2 now using a nylon-type plastic called thermoplastic polyamide, replacing the rubber-based fuel used by SpaceShipOne; ultimately too problematic for the SS2 design. Participating in the press conference were executives Kevin Mickey, CEO of Scaled Composites, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and Stu Witt, chief executive of Mojave Air and Space Port. They emphasized that the nylon-based rocket fuel and engine had been thoroughly tested on the ground and they were confident of its readiness for in-flight testing.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight during test prior to release of the experimental space vehicle. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight during test prior to release of the experimental space vehicle. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Within seconds of release, SpaceShipTwo’s engine ignited for flight. Two minutes into the powered flight would have permitted considerable time for SpaceShipTwo to gain altitude and speed. The pilots were not wearing pressure suits, only masks providing supplemental oxygen. At 50,000 feet and more, conditions are equivalent to space, and fluids in the human body begin to boil – turn from liquid to gas. The velocity of the surrounding jetstream upon breakup or ejection would have caused loss of their masks and any oxygen possibly carried with them.

Scaled Composites did not state during the press conference at what altitude the accident occurred. Based on the time of the accident – 2 minutes into powered flight – the vehicle could have been anywhere from 40,000 feet (12 km) to as high as 200,000 feet (60 km). It is more likely that, for this first flight of the nylon-based propellant, the trajectory was left shallow or the full potential of the motor not tested.

SpaceShipTwo does not have ejection seats but is equipped with an escape hatch. The fuselage is fully pressurized for the pilots and planned paying customers. It is not yet determined if the test pilots escaped from the hatch or were thrown from the vehicle after its mid-air breakup.

It is standard practice for any test pilot in an experimental vehicle to be wearing a parachute. SpaceShipTwo would be no exception. Furthermore, being aware of the flight conditions and escaping from a vehicle at high altitude, the chutes very likely had automatic mechanisms to deploy, assuming unconsciousness.

The press conference did not provide further details. At noon time PST, it did not seem evident that the rescue teams knew the conditions of the crew. Rescue teams at the Mojave airport supporting Scaled Composites were prepared and were quickly dispatched. The debris field was located but some more time was required to find both test pilots.

“We do know one of the crew members was met by emergency responders, treated on the scene, and transported to Antelope Valley Hospital,” said Witt at the press conference. “We also know that we have one fatality.”

During the press conference, Scaled Composite and Virgin Galactic executives emphasized their grief and concern for the surviving pilot, the families and friends. The Mojave desert-based companies are a tight knit group and a loss is certainly extremely personal to every team member. The executives did also emphasize once again that “space is hard.” This was first stated by President Kennedy during his famous speech at Rice University. Those words were echoed earlier this week when Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds into flight and the leaders of lost payloads were also quick to state the same. The Scaled Composites expressed during the press conference that they remain determined and committed and now in honor of a fallen test pilot and another fighting for his life.

A SpaceShipTwo solid rocket motor is tested on a stand in the Mojave desert. Recent delays led Scaled Composites to swtich from a rubber-based fuel to one chemically similar to nylon. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
A SpaceShipTwo solid rocket motor is tested on a stand in the Mojave desert. Recent delays led Scaled Composites to swtich from a rubber-based fuel to one chemically similar to nylon. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Now a accident investigation begins. The FAA and NSTB will be involved. The investigation of this type of accident will takes months. For Scaled Composites who is effectively responsible and the owner of the flight systems will be analyzing their telemetry and are now forced to consider if the new rocket fuel is worthy of flight or whether they will turn to another solid fuel for SpaceShiptTwo. Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group including Galactic has stated that they are five years behind schedule and most of this is attributed to engine development troubles. Company executives stated during the press conference that Branson is expected in Mojave within 24 hours.

Correction: November 1, 2014

In the original article of October 31, 2014, released immediately after the first press conference in the aftermath of the fatal test flight accident, it was stated that the rocket engine in the test flight was using thermoset plastic similar to nylon. The article is now corrected. The rocket fuel of version 2 of RocketMotorTwo is a thermoplastic polyamide which is similar to nylon.

BREAKING: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Suffers ‘In-flight Anomaly,’ Crashes in Test Flight

According to reports on Twitter, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo exploded in midflight, and debris was seen scattered on ground in the Mojave Desert in California. Virgin tweeted that the rocket plane suffered an “in-flight anomaly” during a powered test flight on Friday. Other witnesses said it involved a fatal explosion and crashed.

“The ship broke apart and started coming down in pieces over the desert,” tweeted Doug Messier (@spacecom), managing editor of the Parabolic Arc website.

The Associated Press is now reporting that the California Highway Patrol reports 1 fatality, 1 major injury after the SpaceShipTwo accident.

Virgin Galactic provided this statement via Twitter:

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 SpaceShipTwo. WK2 (WhiteKnightTwo) 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 ASAP.

Virgin Galactic initially sent the news via this tweet:

News helicopters are now on site, providing views of the crash site, such as the one in this tweet:

The ABC News affiliate in California reported the rescue crew was seen “carrying person on stretcher to chopper.”

Doug Messier, who was onsite at Mojave for the test flight, also said via Twitter that he saw one of the crash sites and a “body still in seat.” Also that “Debris from the ship was scattered all over the road.”

SpaceShipTwo holds two pilots; they are each equipped with parachutes, but not ejection seats. Reports indicated at least one deployed parachute was sighted.

Other witnesses reported that SpaceShipTwo exploded after ignition of the engines. According to Spaceflightnow.com, SpaceShipTwo was making its first powered flight since January and was testing a redesigned nylon-based solid rocket motor. This was the 55th flight of SpaceShipTwo and its 35th free flight.

You can read a detailed look at this new engine, how and why it was developed, etc. in an article posted just yesterday by Doug Messier on Parabolic Arc.

Update: The FAA has now issued this statement:

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.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) tweeted that they are going “to send Go-Team to investigate Virgin Galactic test flight crash in Mojave, Calif.”

Update: According to the Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman, the co-pilot was killed, but pilot ejected and suffered moderate to major injuries in Virgin Galactic crash. Virgin Galactic did not provide information prior to the flight of who would be on board today’s test flight.

We’ll provide more updates as they become available.

Touchdown! Virgin Spacecraft Prototype Soars Over Mojave, Testing Re-Entry System

Virgin Galactic has finished yet another stepping-stone to its first commercial spaceflight. The New Mexico-based company sent SpaceShipTwo aloft on a test of the re-entry system Oct. 7, making a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The company is among a handful of firms competing to bring well-heeled tourists into suborbital space. There are more than 700 people signed up to take a flight on SpaceShipTwo, with tickets running at $250,000 per seat. The spacecraft is put into the air using a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, then separates for a brief flight in space. Exact timing for the first flight has not been disclosed yet, but it is expected to be in the coming months.

“SpaceShipTwo is safely back on the ground after her 54th test flight, including her tenth test of the feather system,” wrote Virgin Galactic in a tweet yesterday (Oct. 7). “Coupled with several good, full duration ground tests of SS2’s rocket motor in recent weeks, today’s flight brings spaceflight closer.”

Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10,  2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014, over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

It’s been a long road to space for Virgin Galactic, which last week commemorated the 10th anniversary of the predecessor prototype spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) making a second flight into suborbital space Oct. 4, 2004, to win the Ansari X-Prize — the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961.

The spacecraft was built by Scaled Composites and today is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan subsequently designed SpaceShipTwo, but has since retired.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has pushed back the first spaceflight of the new spacecraft several times over the years. In recent statements he has said he was hoping the spacecraft would be ready early next year, but in an NBC news report from last week he simply said SpaceShipTwo is “on the verge” of starting flights.

More pictures from yesterday’s test flight are below.

Black Sky: Virgin’s Spaceship Carrier Takes To Air For 150th Time

As Virgin Galactic gets ready for its first space test of SpaceShipTwo — a feat widely expected to take place later this year — the private company recently posted a new photo of the carrier aircraft that will bring the spaceship to altitude for its kick to orbit. Called WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft completed its 150th flight.

The post comes not too long after Virgin and others commemorated the 10th anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s first flight into space. The company subsequently sent the spacecraft there again, winning the Ansari X-Prize.

The Scaled Composites spaceship sparked an agreement with Virgin Galactic to start what the companies call the world’s first spaceliner, Virgin Galactic. The first test flight has been pushed back several years during development. Virgin founder Richard Branson has said he is planning to be on the first flight, along with some of his family.

Stunning Footage from SpaceShipTwo’s Third Rocket-Powered Flight

Virgin Galactic released video from SpaceShipTwo’s flight test last Friday, January 10, 2014. This was the third supersonic, rocket-powered test of the Virgin Galactic system after dozens of successful subsonic test flights. The pilots Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky tested the spaceship’s Reaction Control System, the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms, and the “feather” re-entry system, all with great success.

See some images from the flight below.

You can read our coverage from Friday’s test flight here.

Image from SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10, 2014. Credit: Virgin Galactic.
Image from SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014. Credit: Virgin Galactic.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10,  2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

SpaceShipTwo Goes Supersonic in Third Rocket-Powered Test Flight

2014 should be the year that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) brings passengers on suborbital space flights, and the company started off the year by successfully completing its third rocket-powered supersonic flight today. Virgin Galactic said they accomplished all of the objectives for this test flight.

“Today’s flight was another resounding success,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “We focused on gathering more transonic and supersonic data, and our chief pilot, Dave, handled the vehicle beautifully. With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014.”

This was the third supersonic, rocket-powered test of the Virgin Galactic system after dozens of successful subsonic test flights.

Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay piloted the craft along with Scaled Composites’ Test Pilot Mark Stucky. They tested the spaceship’s Reaction Control System, the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms, and the “feather” re-entry system.

Virgin Galactic said the RCS will allow its pilots to maneuver the vehicle in space so that passengers will have great views of Earth, as well as aiding the positioning process for spacecraft re-entry. The new reflective protection coating on SS2’s inner tail boom surfaces is being evaluated to help maintain vehicle skin temperatures while the rocket motor is firing.

Today’s flight departed Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:22 a.m. PST. The WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft brought SS2 to an altitude around 46,000 ft. Then SS2 was released, and its rocket motor was ignited, powering the spaceship to a planned altitude of 71,000 ft. That is SS2’s highest altitude to date, and it also reached a speed of Mach 1.4.

“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights,” said Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson. “2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space. Today, we had our own Chief Pilot flying another flawless supersonic flight and proving the various systems required to take us safely to space, as well as providing the very best experience while we’re up there.”

Weekly Space Hangout – Sept. 6, 2013: LADEE Launch, Chris Kraft, Life From Mars, SpaceShipTwo and More

We missed a week, but now we’re back with the Weekly Space Hangout… back with a vengeance, with a full crew of 8 space journalists. We talked about the upcoming LADEE Launch, the test flight of SpaceShipTwo, an interview with Chris Kraft and much much more.

Host: Fraser Cain

Journalists: Alan Boyle, Amy Shira Teitel, Casey Dreier, Jason Major, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, David Dickinson, and Eric Berger

LADEE Launch Set for Friday Night
Get Involved with LADEE
Chris Kraft on NASA
Did Life on Earth Come From Mars
Deep Impact… Dead?
Kepler Re-purposing Ideas
SpaceShipTwo Test
Europa Clipper Mission Update
M87 Jet Seen By Hubble
Black Hole Shuts Down Star Formation

We broadcast the Weekly Space Hangout as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Friday at 12:00pm Pacific / 3:00pm Eastern. You can watch the show on Universe Today, or from the Cosmoquest Event when we post it.

Ride Along With SpaceShipTwo: Tail Footage Video of Latest Test Flight

Yesterday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo successfully completed its second supersonic rocket-powered test flight. In our previous article, we were able to share a video view of the flight — as seen from the ground. But now Virgin Galactic has shared the flight footage from a camera mounted on the tail of the ship, allowing us all to ride along and see the views. I’m hoping for they’ll eventually show a cabin view video so that we can see what the ride inside will be like.

The ship went to 69,000 feet (21 km, 13 miles) but you can still see the blackness of space and the curvature of Earth in the video.

Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson said yesterday that commercial flights with passengers should begin in 2014 … which is next year, meaning that perhaps space flight for the rest of us is not always 5-10 years off anymore.

SpaceShipTwo Feathers Wings During Second Powered Test Flight

Is that the smell of rocket fuel in the air, or customer excitement?

The reported 600+ customers waiting in line for a trip to space aboard SpaceShipTwo (nickname: Enterprise) surely must have been excited when the suborbital spaceship successfully sailed through another powered flight test today (Thursday).

“SS2 has successfully completed another supersonic rocket-powered test flight! Hit our planned duration, altitude, and speed,” Virgin Galactic wrote on Twitter.

Watch the video of the flight below:

SpaceShipTwo also tested a “feathering” system that it has on board to assist with controlled re-entry. It allows the entire tail of the spaceship to rotate up to about 65 degrees, which Virgin says allows fine control of the attitude as the spacecraft comes back to Earth. “The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before,” Virgin said of the system on its website.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, aboard WhiteKnightTwo, takes off during a flight test Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, aboard WhiteKnightTwo, takes off during a flight test Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)

The test, which started at about 8 a.m. Mojave time, saw the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port carrying SpaceShipTwo underneath. At 46,000 feet, pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols released their spacecraft from the carrier and turned on the rocket motor for a 20-second burn. They climbed as high as 69,000 feet at a maximum speed of Mach 1.43, or 1.43 times the speed of sound.

“The main progress with this test is that we deployed the full expansion (up and down) of the feather mechanism at a high altitude, alongside testing the rocket motor performance,” wrote Virgin founder Richard Branson on his blog. “This feather mechanism was the key innovation that enabled us to get into the space program in the first place. It acts like a giant shuttlecock and slows the spaceship up as it comes back into the earth’s atmosphere.”

Branson also described Thursday’s test — the second powered flight for SpaceShipTwo, which did its first in April — as “the highest commercial winged vehicle [flight] in history.”

Reports say Branson and some members of his family will be on the first test flight. Should that go to plan, there is a parade of celebrities and ordinary citizens to come. Read more about SpaceShipTwo’s expected flight profile here.

Weekly Space Hangout – May. 3, 2013

Another busy episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, with more than a dozen space stories covered by a collection of space journalists. This week’s panel included Alan Boyle, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, Amy Shira Teitel, David Dickinson, Dr. Matthew Francis, and Jason Major. Hosted by Fraser Cain. We discussed:

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Cosmoquest or listen after as part of the Astronomy Cast podcast feed (audio only).