MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) – A Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded Friday after taking off on a test flight, killing one person aboard and seriously injuring another while scattering wreckage in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, witnesses and officials said.
The company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson would not say what happened other that it was working with authorities to determine the cause of the “accident.”
“During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo,” Virgin Galactic tweeted Friday.
Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the crash, told The Associated Press that SpaceShipTwo exploded after a plane designed to take it to a higher altitude released it and the craft ignited its rocket motor.
SLIDESHOW: Photos of crash scene
Brown said the wreckage fell in the desert north of Mojave Air and Space Port, where the test flight originated. The area is about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
There is one fatality and one major injury, California Highway Patrol Officer Jesse Borne said. One person parachuted out, he said.
Friday’s catastrophic launch was the second rocket explosion this week.
On Tuesday, an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff from a launch site in Virginia. No injuries were reported that accident, which drew criticism over NASA’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle era.
Virgin Galactic, once it finished developing its rocket ship, was going to launch space tourism flights from the quarter-billion-dollar Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, did not want to comment on the events unfolding Friday in the California desert or what effect they might have on Spaceport America and the future of commercial space travel.
Virgin Galactic is in line to be the main tenant at the spaceport that was built specifically to launch paying customers into space, a dream of Branson. His company has repeated pushed back the timetable for when the $250,000 flights were to begin, pointing to delays in development and testing of the rocket ship.
Taxpayers footed the bill to build the state-of-the-art hangar and runway in a remote stretch of desert in southern New Mexico as part of a plan devised by Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Critics have long challenged the state’s investment, questioning whether flights would ever get off the ground.