One person died and another was injured Friday when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo test flight failed following what the company described as a “serious anomaly.”
The casualties are believed to be the pilots of the spaceplane, though California Highway Patrol Officer Jesse Borne did not identify them.
The injured person has been airlifted to a local hospital, Borne said. He declined to identify the hospital.
Virgin Galactic has planned for years to sell trips in which SpaceShipTwo transports passengers about 62 miles above Earth — the beginning of outer space — and lets them experience a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to ground.
“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,” according to a statement released by Virgin Galactic.
“…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.”
News of the crash of SpaceShipTwo came just after 10 a.m. local time (1 p.m. ET).
Virgin Galactic has not confirmed whether the casualties were the test pilots.
The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after SpaceShipTwo separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle designed to carry it aloft, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
Television footage from CNN affiliate KABC-TV in Los Angeles showed SpaceShipTwo in pieces in the Mojave Desert.
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a “go team” to investigate the test flight failure, the agency said.
Virgin’s chief, Richard Branson, confirmed the loss on Twitter: “Thoughts with all @virgingalactic & Scaled, thanks for all your messages of support. I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team.”
It’s unclear what the failure of the spaceplane will mean for the program. Virgin Galactic planned to send paying customers on SpaceShipTwo as early as 2015.
With composite lightweight materials, “feathered” rudders capable of turning 90 degrees and a hybrid rocket engine, it is as safe as modern technology can make it. As designer and aviator Burt Rutan put it in 2008, “This vehicle is designed to go into the atmosphere in the worst case straight in or upside down and it’ll correct.”
Details of Friday’s test flight plan were not immediately known. But in previous test flights, SpaceShipTwo has been loaded on the jet-powered WhiteKnightTwo, which can take the spaceplane to about 50,000 feet.
At that altitude, SpaceShipTwo would then fire its RocketMotorTwo — a hybrid rocket engine powered by both solid and liquid fuel.
SpaceShipTwo would reach supersonic speeds on its way to its intended altitude of about 62 miles above the Earth. At that point, people onboard would get about five minutes of weightlessness before the bonds of earth retract with 6 G’s of force.
The spaceplane would then glide back through the atmosphere to landing.
Friday’s is the second incident in a week involving the commercial space industry.
On Tuesday, an unmanned Antares rocket exploded just after takeoff off the coast of Virginia. Controllers deliberately destroyed the craft after it became apparent there was a problem, a spokesman for Orbital Sciences Corporation said Thursday.