MOJAVE Calif./CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. (Reuters) - Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson vowed on Saturday to find out what caused his space tourism company’s passenger spaceship to crash during a test flight in California, killing one pilot and injuring the other, but expressed a desire to press on with the dream of commercial space flight.
U.S. investigators have indicated the powered test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on Friday was well recorded, giving them an abundance of information to help determine what caused it to crash and spread debris over a 5-mile (8 km) swath of the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles.
Branson arrived in the Mojave Desert to meet his Virgin Galactic team and federal officials who were opening their investigation into the accident, the second in less than a week involving a commercial space company.
“We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong,” Branson said during a news conference in Mojave.
“If we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on,” he said.
Michael Alsbury, 39, has been identified as the co-pilot who died in the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, and the surviving pilot is Peter Siebold, 43.
Alsbury, who police said was found dead in the aircraft and who resided in Tehachapi, California, was a project engineer and test pilot at Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary that built and designed the spacecraft for Virgin Galactic.
Alsbury was flying for the ninth time aboard SpaceShipTwo, including serving as the co-pilot on its first rocket-powered test flight on April 29, 2013, according to his biography on the company’s website.
Siebold parachuted from SpaceShipTwo and was found with serious injuries by rescuers, who took him by helicopter to Antelope Valley Hospital, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
He was alert and talking with his family and doctors on Saturday, Scaled Composites said in a statement, but National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Christopher Hart said his agency’s investigators have not yet interviewed Siebold at the advice of his doctors.
An NTSB team arrived at the crash site on Saturday to begin piecing together what led to the crash.
“We are here to investigate this accident, while we are here investigating there is nothing that stops this operation from continuing flying,” Hart said.
An aircraft flying behind SpaceShipTwo collected video images and radar data, and a range camera at Edwards Air Force Base also recorded the failed test flight, Hart said. The spaceship had video cameras and data storage cards on board which could help investigators.
Friday’s crash was the second disaster in less than a week suffered by a private space company, dealing a blow to the fledgling commercial space industry that has been taking on work traditionally done by governments.
On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.
NEW TYPE of FUEL
The Virgin probe will likely focus on SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine, which on Friday was flying with a new type of fuel for the first time, experts said.
The solid plastic-type propellant is ignited by nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas.
Virgin Galactic announced in May it was replacing the rubber-based propellant used during the spaceship’s three previous rocket-powered test flights to get better performance.
“We’ve tested both of these fuel grains a lot,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides told Reuters at the time.
Before Friday’s flight, SpaceShipTwo’s last powered test flight was in January, though the rocket and its new propellant had passed multiple ground tests.
Virgin Galactic is a U.S. offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group founded by Branson, one of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs whose empire ranges from airlines to music stores and mobiles phones.
Friday’s accident marked the fourth fatality in Scaled’s SpaceShipTwo development effort. In 2007, a fuel tank exploded, killing three Scaled employees.
Additional reporting by Lucy Nicholson in Mojave, California, Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle and Curtis Skinner in San Francisco, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis,; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt, Chizu Nomiyama & Kim Coghill