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With fatal crash, spaceflight industry takes a second hit

LOS ANGELES – Commercial space flight is reeling from a major setback, after suffering two major accidents in less than a week.

The more serious blow, which included a fatality, occurred Friday as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, part of an ambitious commercial space venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, crashed during testing and broke into several pieces. One test pilot was killed and another was injured.

The explosion has almost certainly dashed Branson’s goal of starting passenger flights next spring.

“Space is hard and today was a tough day,” said George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic.

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which carries the SpaceShipTwo, landed safely. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on their way to the Mojave Desert crash site, which the Kern County Sheriff said was spread over five debris fields over a two- to three-mile area.

Virgin Galactic has engaged in a nearly decade-long endeavor to produce the world’s first commercial space liner, which would make several trips a day carrying scores of paying customers into space for a brief journey.

It announced an agreement in May with the Federal Aviation Administration that helped clear the path to send paying customers on a suborbital flight by setting parameters for how routine missions to space will take place in national airspace. Scaled Composites was conducting the test flight in partnership with Virgic Galactic, and its CEO said the flight was using a new fuel formation that had been tested on the ground. In January, SpaceShipTwo reached 71,000 feet – its highest altitude so far.

The crash was the second catastrophe in the commercial space industry in a week. On Tuesday night, an unmanned rocket exploded just seconds after liftoff from a Virginia launch pad. The $200 million rocket, owned by Orbital Sciences, was carrying supplies to the space station. No one was injured in that explosion.

Virgin Galactic’s plans have been repeatedly delayed. Branson said earlier this month at a celebration in Mojave that it was “on the verge” of going to space.

Virgin Galactic’s reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was designed to fly with the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship separates and blasts off. Virgin Galactic has said that when the rocket motor engages, it will power the spaceship to nearly 2,500 mph and take the pilot – and up to six passengers – to the edge of space, or more than 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. Passengers would experience weightlessness at the suborbital altitude and see the curvature of the Earth. The spaceship would re-enter the atmosphere and glide back to a runway. The company planned to charge $250,000 for the experience.

This week’s accidents are drawing attention to one of the drawbacks of slashing spending on NASA and giving entities beholden to investors a greater role in orbital and suborbital flight, according to Marco Caceros, a director of the Fairfax, Va.-based consultant Teal Group. Companies aren’t flying dozens of test flights before attempting missions, as NASA did during the 1960s and 1970s, Caceres said.

Virgin Galactic said it has accepted more than $80 million in deposits for about 700 reservations made by people who are interested in the ride, including stars like Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio. Ticket holders also include Jim Clash, a writer and resident of New York City. He reserved his ticket four years ago with a 10 percent deposit and says he won’t be swayed.

“It’s rocket science. It’s dangerous, it’s risky, it’s complicated. Most of us who bought tickets know that,” he said. “I expected there to be accident … I’m very sad and shocked that it was in such a spectacular fashion today, but it’s not going to change my view.”