MOJAVE, Calif. | Billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson vowed Saturday to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism rocket, killing one crew member and injuring another, but sounded a cautious note about any move to quickly push the project forward.
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 National Transportation Safety Board, whose team had just arrived.
“We are determined to find out what went wrong,” he said, asserting 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.
“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.”
Branson added, however, that “we are not going to push on blindly.” He also criticized early speculation.
“To be honest, I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they’re saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments,” he said.
The pilot killed in the test flight was identified Saturday as Michael Tyner Alsbury, 39, of nearby Tehachapi, who worked for Scaled Composites, the company developing the spaceship for Virgin Galactic.
Alsbury was one of the pilots who flew SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in April 2013 and was one of three Scaled pilots honored that year by the Society of Experimental Pilots for a technical presentation based on their experience in the craft’s flight test program.
More than a dozen investigators in a range of specialties were forming teams to examine the crash site, collect data and interview witnesses, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart told a press conference at Mojave Air and Space Port, where the winged spacecraft was under development.
Hart said the investigation will have similarities to a typical NTSB probe as well as some differences.
“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 he did not immediately know the answers to such questions as whether the spaceship had flight recorders or the altitude of the accident, but noted that test flights are usually well documented.
Virgin Galactic plans to fly passengers to altitudes more than 62 miles above the Earth but test flights so far had been well below that.
The NTSB investigators were expected to head to an area about 20 miles from the Mojave airfield where debris from SpaceShipTwo fell over a wide area of uninhabited desert Friday morning.
Branson has been the front-runner in the fledgling space tourism industry, which has taken years longer than expected by hundreds of enthusiasts who have already put down deposits to reserve seats.
On Saturday, he said none of the money has been spent and anyone who wanted a refund could get it, but no one has asked. Rather, he said, someone signed up on the day of the accident in a show of support.
“They’ve been patient to date,” he said of his customers. “I think most of them will be patient longer.”
The spacecraft broke up after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the accident.
The deceased pilot was found inside wreckage and another parachuted out and was flown by helicopter to a hospital, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. The survivor’s name was not released.
The accident occurred just as it seemed commercial space flights were near.
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 mothership or functioned as a glider after release.
At 60 feet long, SpaceShipTwo featured two large windows for each of up to six passengers, one on the side and one overhead.
Virgin Galactic — owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — 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.
Friday’s accident was the second this week involving private space flight. On Tuesday, an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff in Virginia.
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.
Friday’s death was not the first associated with the program. Three people died during a blast at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2007 during testing work on a rocket motor of SpaceShipTwo.
John Antczak contributed to this report from Los Angeles.