Investigation begins at SpaceShipTwo crash site
MOJAVE, Calif. -- National Transportation Safety Board officials arrived at the scene of the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo in the California desert and said more than a dozen investigators had been assigned to determine what went ...
MOJAVE, Calif. - National Transportation Safety Board officials arrived at the scene of the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the California desert and said more than a dozen investigators had been assigned to determine what went wrong Friday.
Killed in the crash was one of the rocket’s two pilots, who was identified as Michael Alsbury, 39, a spokeswoman at the Kern’s County coroner’s office said.
The other pilot was injured; his name has not been released.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson was also near the scene on Saturday and said his company was eager to find out how the rocket ship failed.
"In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short," Branson said. "We will now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward together.
"We do understand the risks involved and we’re not going to push on blindly. To do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy."
He said it was "fair to say that all 400 engineers that work here ... and I think most people in the world" want to see the dream of commercial space travel live on.
Branson said the company adhered to rigorous testing standards "precisely to ensure that this never happens to the public."
This will be the first time that the NTSB has led an investigation into a space launch with people on board, the agency’s acting chairman, Christopher Hart, said Saturday. The NTSB assisted in the investigations of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, he said.
The crash site and debris field was protected by the Kern County Sheriff’s Department overnight, Hart said, and he expected NTSB investigators to have a lot of evidence to sift through. He said he did not know if the rocket plane had a flight-data recorder.
"This was a test flight and test flights are typically very well documented in terms of data," he said.
Friday’s test flight was the first in which SpaceShipTwo used a new motor with a plastic-based fuel. Virgin Galactic announced in May that it was switching to the new fuel after using a rubber-based propellant.
Executives said after the crash that the new motor and fuel had been thoroughly tested on the ground before the rocket plane took off, suspended under its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo, shortly after 9 a.m. Friday from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
WhiteKnightTwo typically carries SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing the space plane. The malfunction occurred just seconds after separation, officials said.
"The aircraft is in several different pieces," said Kern County Sheriff Don Youngblood. Alsbury was found dead at the scene. The second pilot was taken to Antelope Valley Hospital, he said, with "major injuries."
At least one pilot parachuted from the aircraft.
Alsbury, 39, worked for Scaled Composites in Mojave for 14 years as a project engineer and test pilot.
In April 2013 he served as co-pilot, with Mark Stucky as pilot, on SpaceShipTwo’s first rocket-powered flight. The aircraft broke the sound barrier, reaching Mach 1.2, and climbed to about 56,000 feet in altitude. The entire flight lasted a little more than 10 minutes. It ended in a smooth landing in Mojave.
As of last year, Alsbury had logged more than 1,800 hours of flight experience, 1,600 of those as a test pilot and engineer in Scaled Composites aircraft, according to a biography provided for the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Symposium.