It’s been a bad week for space travel. A Virgin Galactic rocket plane with two pilots on board exploded and crashed in a test flight Friday morning. The crash resulted in one death and major injuries for the other pilot. Officials say a pilot found inside the plane died immediately, and the other, who parachuted out of the vehicle, was transported to a hospital.
Three days earlier, an unmanned Antares rocket from private space company Orbital Sciences exploded shortly after lift-off, a mission currently under investigation.
The SpaceShipTwo rocket from Virgin Galactic, a commercial space company that plans to transport tourists to suborbital space for $250,000, experienced an “in-flight anomaly” at 10:12 a.m. PT, two minutes after it was released from its mothership WhiteKnightTwo, which took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port outside Los Angeles at 9:20 a.m. The National Transportation Safety Board will begin an investigation, expected to take several days, Saturday at 7:30 a.m.
“Space is hard, and today was a tough day,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said at a press conference Friday afternoon. “[The] future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles, as well as the folks who were working so hard to understand this, to move forward, which is what we’ll do.”
Virgin Galactic and its partner Scaled Composites were testing a new fuel formula, which purportedly burns more efficiently, with a new type of engine.
In 2007, Scaled Composites conducted a test of rocket components for SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert that killed three employees and injured three others. Both pilots on board SpaceShipTwo on Friday were Scaled Composites employees.
Recent mission failures, which also include the explosion of a SpaceX test rocket in August, are causing some people to wonder whether private space companies take on more risks compared with NASA, which ended its space shuttle program in 2011. To cut its reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules, NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to Boeing and SpaceX in September to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.