Virgin Galactic is reporting that there has been an "in-flight anomaly" aboard SpaceShipTwo. The suborbital flight took off at 9:19am PDT from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Update: Virgin Galactic has confirmed that SpaceshipTwo has crashed and the California Highway Patrol has confirmed that there is one fatality and one major injury.
Above, a photo of SpaceShipTwo's explosion from the Associated Press, shot by Ken Brown. Below, the Virgin Galactic rocket separates from the carrier aircraft prior to it exploding.
The flight marked the first use of a new type of fuel to power the ship's engine. As Aviation Week reports, Virgin Galactic, along with their partner Scaled Composites were testing a new hybrid type rocket motor with the new fuel:
The flight was testing the performance of the new polyamide-based grain that was adopted in place of the hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, a form of rubber that was used for the first series of powered tests. Scaled and Virgin, which announced the decision to change to the new fuel in May, made the switch in hopes of providing a longer, more energetic burn with lower thrust oscillations.
From NBC News:
The reported anomaly came after SpaceShipTwo fired up its rocket engine in flight for the first time in more than nine months. Since then, Virgin Galactic has switched the plane's fuel mixture from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix — in hopes that the new formulation would boost the hybrid rocket engine's performance.
The crash has now been confirmed by the the director of the Mojave Air and Space Port Stu Witt who will hold a press conference at 2pm local time.
Reports are coming in from people on the ground talking about the debris sites:
Virgin Galactic has issued a statement confirming the loss of the vehicle, but say that the status of the pilots is still unknown. Update: The California Highway Patrol has confirmed that there is one fatality and one major injury.
From Virgin Galactic:
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 the vehicle. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft 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 as soon as we are able to do so.
This is obviously a major setback for Virgin Galactic and its partners, who have been promising to put space tourists on regular flights for over a decade now. And things don't look good, according to the people who have been covering Virgin Galactic.
Today's crash was in the Mojave Desert in California, but the facility where space tourism flights were supposed to take off in the next couple of years is Spaceport America in New Mexico. The facility has gotten heat for being heavily subsidized by the state, but the advertised trade off has always been that the facility would provide an influx of jobs and money into the state. Today's crash leaves that in doubt.
Video from CNN with Joël Glenn Brenner, a former reporter for the Washington Post who covers Virgin Galactic and is friends with the pilots:
"The enthusiasm that has been shown outwardly by Virgin Galactic and by Sir Richard certainly does not match at all with the technology behind the scenes," Brenner, who is currently working on a book about Virgin Galactic, told CNN. "There's a big gap there and has been for quite some time."
Richard Branson is reportedly en route to the Mojave Space Port, according to CNN.
"This engine that exploded today, even if they had had a successful flight, and even if they had not stolen my friend's life, okay," Brenner said choking up on CNN. "...they would not have ever gotten anywhere near space with this engine, okay?"
"So I am here to say that they took this pilot's life and this engine still would not have gotten customers to space. And I want people to know that now and I am sure that Virgin Galactic is going to be very unhappy with me," Brenner said. "We're telling the truth. But it is time the truth be told. Because that is the truth."
"They do not have any vehicle anywhere near completion," Joël Glenn Brenner has told CNN, noting that they don't have another aircraft waiting in the wings. "This really marks the end for what they can do."
The new engine reportedly blew up within the first six seconds of ignition. Both pilots were civilian pilots, meaning that they did not go through military flight training, though this has yet to be confirmed.
As Motherboard notes, three employees of Virgin Galactic's partner, Scaled Composites, were killed during an accident back in 2007. That accident also took place at the Mojave Air and Space Port and happened when they were testing a rocket system for the SpaceShipTwo.
NBC has a livestream of the press conference about the crash of SpaceShipTwo, which starts at 2pm Pacific time, 5pm Eastern.
Image above from the Associated Press: From left to right, Donny Youngblood of Kern County Shirff, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, Kevin Mickey, President of Scaled Composite, Stuart Witt, CEO and General Manager of Mojave Air and Space, and Mike Cody of Kern County Fire Department
The crash occurred approximately 25 miles north of the airport, according to Stu Witt, the director of the Mojave Air and Space Port. Everyone at the press conference has confirmed that there was one fatality and one serious injury as a result of the "mishap."
The National Transportation and Safety Board will arrive and begin their investigation into the crash tomorrow morning.
"Space is hard, and today was a tough day," the CEO of Virgin Galactic, George T. Whitesides said. He noted that Richard Branson will be on site by tomorrow morning as well.
"We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today, and we're going to get through it," Whitesides said. "The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks that were working so hard on them to understand this, and to move forward."
The director of the air and spaceport said that from his vantage point he couldn't see any explosion, as some reports in the media had claimed.
"This was a pure test, not a public event. I detected nothing that appeared abnormal," Stu Witt said. "I couldn't detect anything. There was a pause of about 90 seconds [...] It was what I was not hearing and not seeing. If there was a huge explosion I didn't hear it, I didn't see it."
The two test pilots have not yet been identified but it was confirmed that they were both employees of Scaled Composites, not Virgin Galactic.
"We're doing this for you and for your generation," Stu Witt said referring to the future of space travel. "Stay the course. This business is a worthy, good business. This business is not easy. If it was easy, it wouldn't be interesting."
Early secondhand reports from rocket engineer and photographer Ken Brown seem to indicate that there was indeed an explosion. Brown was on the scene and took video of the event, which has yet to be released.
Update: The photos of the explosion from Ken Brown are now at the top of this page. Below, another photo from the AP/Ken Brown just before the explosion.