Sir Richard vows to press on with space tourism despite fatal crash
UPDATE / Nov 2: Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson is vowing to press on with space tourism following yesterday's SpaceShipTwo crash, which claimed the life of a test pilot.
The dead pilot's name has yet to be released.
Virgin Galactic has yet to comment on the cause of the crash, but has said it was the first flight a new plastic-based rocket fuel had been used.
"We owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong, and once we've found out what went wrong, if we can overcome it, we'll make absolutely certain that the dream lives on," Sir Richard said after arriving at the Mojave Desert, California crash scene yesterday.
"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.
"We're going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance and then move forward together," he said, adding they were working with authorities in the investigation.
"We've been undertaking a comprehensive testing program for many years and safety has always been our number one priority."
On Twitter, the entrepreneur added, "Space is hard - but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together."
The question now is whether those who have pre-paid $US250,000 for a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight will still think space is worth it.
They include Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie and New Zealand entrepreneurs Mark Rocket and Derek Handley.
Sir Richard has invested upward of $US400 million in Virgin Galactic.
Pilot reported dead following Virgin Galactic crash
Nov 1: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed in California's Mojave Desert on Friday afternoon local time (Saturday morning NZ time) during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots, according to US media reports.
The second pilot was eject from the space plane, was taken to a nearby hospital with “moderate to major injuries,” according to local police.
"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. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so."
According to a New York Times report, the test flight, the plane’s first under its own power since January and the first since a switch to a new motor, was conducted by Scaled Composites, the designer and builder of SpaceShipTwo.
A local sheriff said SpaceShipTwo, carried aloft by a large airplane, WhiteKnightTwo (which landed safely), took off at 9:18 am Pacific time from the Mojave Air and Space Port. WhiteKnightTwo then flew to an altitude of 15,0000m where it dropped SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo’s motor ignited, and then something went wrong.
The sheriff’s office received a call after 10am that an aircraft had gone down 32km northeast of the city of Mojave. Debris was discovered in a field.
Kiwis booked for first flights
Virgin Galactic had planned to launch its commercial service — taking people 110km up to the edge of space for $US250,000 a ticket — in August. Before today's crash, it had still hoped for its first commercial flight by the end of this year.
If the launch still goes ahead, the first passengers on SpaceShipTwo, which seats eight including two pilots, will be Sir Richard and various Branson family members.
Following them will be 637 others (and counting) as Virgin Galactic – all going well – gears up for five commercial flights a day.
Among them will be eight Kiwis.
They include a real estate agent, a surgeon, Rocket Lab co-founder Mark Rocket and Snakk Media chairman and Iliad fund manager Derek Handley (who was also the founding CEO of Sir Richard’s charitable outfit Plan B, which uses its members’ business skills to tackle social and environmental problems).
They will rub shoulders with other early ticket holders, who range from space enthusiasts to space cadets like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Paris Hilton.
House of Travel is Virgin Galactic’s first “space agent” for NZ.
Mr Handley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.