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Virgin Spaceship Crash Raises Questions

  • Zlatica Hoke

Plans to fly tourists to the edge of space could be delayed after Friday's crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a manned test flight. It is the second explosion of a U.S. commercial spacecraft this week. The two disasters raise questions about the future of commercial space flights in the United States.

Television footage taken from a helicopter shows the wreckage of the spacecraft scattered in California's Mojave Desert. Local authorities say the co-pilot was killed, while the pilot ejected and was hospitalized with serious injuries.

"This was a pure test. This was not a public event. So I will tell you from my eyes and my ears, I detected nothing that appeared abnormal. I was briefed that the plume would look different this time than it had in the past. And it did," said Stuart Witt, chief executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Virgin Galactic said the vehicle's first manned test experienced "a serious anomaly." The company's owner, British billionaire Richard Branson, was hoping to start space tourist travel within the next few months.

"I can say that Richard Branson is on his way. He's flying now to Mojave. And we expect he'll be here by tomorrow morning. Space is hard, and today was a tough day," said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic.

SpaceShipTwo was launched by carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo Friday morning from a location in the desert. Soon after it separated from the carrier, it crashed to the ground.

Some 800 people have reserved seats to fly into sub-orbit.

Meanwhile, officials of Orbital Sciences Corporation are investigating what caused the failure of their cargo spacecraft on Tuesday on Wallops Island,Virginia. Under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA, the company's Cygnus spacecraft, powered by an Antares rocket, was carrying more than two tons of water, food and equipment to the International Space Station. All of it was lost in the crash.

Orbital's two earlier space flights for NASA were successful and the space flight industry refuses to let adversities stop its progress.

“It’s a setback, a short-term setback, but Orbital - they have still four more launches to go to the International Space Station and we anticipate those to be a huge success," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

It is clear, though, that Orbital Corporation will suffer financial losses. In addition to losing a spacecraft, the company's only launch pad in Virginia has been damaged.

NASA has a contract with another private firm, California-based Space X Corporation, whose vehicle is scheduled to send cargo to the space station in December.

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