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Branson Denies Ignoring Safety Concerns Over Virgin Galactic Spacecraft

Billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson salutes the bravery of test pilots, and vows to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism rocket that killed one crew member and injured another during a news conference in Mojave, Ca

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson rejected on Monday media suggestions that he had ignored safety warnings about his Virgin Galactic spaceship before it crashed during a test flight.

One pilot died and the other was badly injured last Friday when SpaceShipTwo crashed in California's Mojave Desert. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is leading an investigation into the cause of the accident.

Mojave Desert, Calif.
Mojave Desert, Calif.

Branson dismissed British news reports suggesting that one of the project's engineers had said last week the rocket was not safe and that he had been overruled because Virgin Galactic, the entrepreneur's fledgling space tourism company, was working to a tight deadline to get passenger flights up and running.

“When you have any incidents you get a lot of self-proclaimed experts coming out, a lot of whom know nothing about what they talk about,” Branson told BBC TV.

“If any of our rocket engineers warned something wasn't safe to go we wouldn't go. I've spent 30 years running three airlines without incident,” said Branson, whose London-based Virgin Group name ranges from airlines to gyms and mobile phones.

“We take safety very, very carefully. Nobody said anything to worry any of the team about going,” he said.

The NTSB said on Sunday that a function to allow the craft to re-enter the atmosphere safely had deployed early and investigators had recovered its propellant tanks and engine, indicating there was no explosion.

“What they said very clearly last night was that, despite what you would read in the British press over the weekend, there was no explosion, the fuel tanks and engine are all completely intact and it was something else that actually caused the accident,” Branson said.

“There have been less than a handful of British papers, and it is strange that it should be British papers, who have gone out and made wild accusations that have now been proved absolutely false. It was all garbage,” he said.

Branson said he did not want to speculate on what had caused the crash until the NTSB issued a final statement.

Confidence undimmed

Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB, said on Sunday investigators had determined that SpaceShipTwo's rotating tail boom, a key safety feature for re-entering the atmosphere, had rotated early, but it was too soon to say whether this had caused the crash.

He also said they could not rule out the possibility of pilot error.

Branson and his son plan to fly on the first commercial flight. It had been scheduled for the end of February or early March next year but flights have now been put on hold indefinitely pending a full investigation into the crash.

About 800 people have already paid or put down deposits for the ride, which costs $250,000, and Branson said he had received “beautiful” letters of support after the crash from some of those who had signed up to the project.

“I'm absolutely confident that Virgin Galactic will go up and will do something extremely important for Great Britain,” he said.

“Yes, we've had a massive setback but I saw all 400 engineers yesterday. They are all willing to work enormously hard to get us back on track and to create something that can be transformative in the world.”