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Billionaire Richard Branson is promising to find out what caused the crash of his Virgin Galactic prototype space tourism rocket that killed a test pilot, but federal investigators are cautioning that it may take up to a year to learn exactly what went wrong.
The crash in the California desert almost certainly dashed Branson’s goal of starting suborbital flight next spring, but the mogul said that while he remained committed to civilian space travel “we are not going to push on blindly.”
In grim remarks at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the craft known as SpaceShipTwo was under development, Branson gave no details of Friday’s accident and deferred to the NTSB, whose team began its first day of investigation Saturday.
“Yesterday, we fell short,” he said. “We’ll now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward.”
He asserted that safety has always been the top priority of the program that envisions taking wealthy tourists six at a time to the edge of space for a brief experience of weightlessness and a view of Earth below.
The pilot killed in the test flight was identified Saturday as Michael Tyner Alsbury, 39, of nearby Tehachapi. The surviving pilot is Peter Siebold, 43, who parachuted to safety and was hospitalized.
Both worked for Scaled Composites, the company developing the spaceship for Virgin Galactic. Scaled Composite said Alsbury was the co-pilot for the test flight. Siebold, who was piloting SpaceShipTwo, “is alert and talking with his family and doctors,” the company said in a statement.
A former colleague said Alsbury was a “home-schooled, home-brewed” pilot who earned his way up through the ranks at the company, starting as an engineer. Alsbury had also put himself through commercial pilot school and was certified as a flight instructor.
“Mike loved what he did. I think his career ended with him doing exactly that. … That yesterday ended up in a tragedy was kind of heart-breaking for many of us,” said Brian Binnie, another test pilot who worked at Scaled Composites for 14 years before leaving the company this year.
National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart said investigators don’t yet know how Siebold got out of the rocket ship because they haven’t had a chance to interview him. He said they found an undeployed parachute at the crash site,
He said a 5-mile path of debris over an area of uninhabited desert indicates the spacecraft broke up in flight. Learning where spacecraft parts fell will help investigators determine when and how the breakup occurred.
“This will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch (accident) that involved persons onboard,” said Hart, noting that the NTSB did participate in investigations of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
Hart said test flights are usually well-documented. Investigators will review video from multiple cameras that were on the spaceship, on the mother ship, on a chase aircraft and at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. They also have six “nonvolatile” sources of information from the aircraft, and radar data to sift through, he said.
The investigation could take up to 12 months to complete, he said.
Virgin Galactic — owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — plans to fly passengers to altitudes more than 62 miles above Earth. The company sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000.
The company says that “future astronauts,” as it calls customers, include Stephen Hawking, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand. The company reports receiving $90 million from about 700 prospective passengers.
On Saturday, Branson said none of that money has been spent and that anyone who wanted a refund could get it. However, he said, no one has asked, and instead someone signed up on the day of the accident in a show of support.
At 60 feet long, SpaceShipTwo featured two large windows for each of up to six passengers, one on the side and one overhead. Branson once envisioned operating flights by 2007. Last month, he talked about the first flight being next spring with his son.
Friday’s flight marked the 55th for SpaceShipTwo, which was intended to be the first of a fleet of craft. This was only the fourth flight to include a brief rocket firing. The rocket fires after the spacecraft is released from the underside of a larger carrying plane. During other flights, the craft either was not released from its mother ship or functioned as a glider after release.
The spacecraft broke up after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the accident.
SpaceShipTwo is based on aerospace design maverick Burt Rutan’s award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004. Three people died in a blast at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2007 while testing a rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo.