A tail piece from SpaceShipTwo debris field. Photo: Laura Davis

A tail piece from SpaceShipTwo debris field. Photo: Laura Davis

by Laura Davis, managing editor

It’s been a bad week for things that fly. I was just finishing an update, earlier today, on the explosion of Orbital Science’s Antares 130 rocket earlier this week, when I got the even-worse news that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo had crashed during a test flight, and one of the pilots had died. The second pilot was able to eject, and parachuted to the ground. He or she was airlifted to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, California. At this time, there’s no official word on that pilot’s condition, just that he or she was “seriously injured.” Both pilots were employees of Virgin Galactic partner, Scaled Composites, which has played a vital role in developing and testing SpaceShipTwo.

The crew was testing the rocket engine of SpaceShipTwo for the first time in nine months. Scaled Composites president Kevin Mickey explained that a new type of fuel had been in testing on the ground since January, and this was the first flight using the new plastic-based mix, which they’d hoped would boost the hybrid rocket engine’s performance. The final pre-flight qualification ground test took place earlier this month and, said Mickey, “we expected no anomalies with the motor today.”

SpaceShipTwo was slung underneath WhiteKnightTwo for launch, and released when the planes reached an altitude of about 50,000 feet. Approximately two minutes later, SpaceShipTwo fired its rocket engine. Eyewitness accounts as to what happened next vary wildly. Stuart Witt, the CEO and general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port said at today’s press conference, “There’s usually a certain cadence, and you see things occurring, and the thing makes a contrail and the like. Because of the very light cirrus clouds, I was eyes on, but I didn’t see any anomaly. In fact it was when I wasn’t hearing anything that I became concerned. And I looked over at my colleague, and then there was a radio call, something about a chute.”

Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, reported that he saw an explosion high in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert.

While it’s clearly too early to tell exactly what went wrong, WhiteKnightTwo and its pilots made a safe landing, and SpaceShipTwo crashed, leaving a 5-mile-long debris field near Cantil, California: a part of the Mojave Desert so desolate that even joshua trees won’t grow there.

After leaving the press conference held at the Mojave Air and Space Port, I headed up to Cantil with a heavy heart. As I turned off to the road nearest the crash site, traffic was stopped for road construction (unrelated to the crash), and I found myself in the middle of a convoy of Kern County Search and Rescue (S.A.R.) vehicles, headed to the scene. When the flagman waved us on, it felt like a funeral procession. I stopped at the S.A.R. staging area, which was also being used as a base for the helicopter which was searching the debris field, and for Kern County Fire and Sheriff’s Department personnel on scene. This staging area was near the end of the debris field where the pilot who died was found. The surviving pilot was found a couple of miles away, near where I photographed a piece of the plane’s tail. I watched as the S.A.R. team deployed its fleet of quad-runners and set off for their assignments. They’d been instructed not to talk to the press, but as a former S.A.R. team member, I suspect their primary task was to help secure the site, and possibly to help locate and mark debris for collection.

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Farther down the road, I found another access point to the boundary of the debris field, manned by a pair of Federal agents. They told me that the site would be manned 24/7 until the debris field was mapped and all the needed pieces collected. When I left, it was still daylight, winds gusting to about 50 MPH, and the temperature had already dropped to 55F, with a storm was quickly approaching. It’s going to be a long night for everyone out there.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement, “Our primary thoughts at this moment are with the crew and family, and we’re doing everything we can for them now. I’d like to recognize the work of the first responders who we work with in the Antelope Valley for their efforts on behalf of the team. We’re also thinking of the team members that we have at the companies that have been working on this program.

“Space is hard and today was a tough day. We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today. We’re going to get through it. The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the team, that has been working so hard on this endeavour, to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we’ll do.”

I think Witt summed the feeling up best at today’s press conference: “We are human, and it hurts. Our hearts, thoughts, prayers are absolutely with the families and the victims.”

VIrgin Galactic representatives have issued a statement that Richard Branson is on his way to Mojave to be with his team, and that there will be another press conference tomorrow. We’ll keep you up to date as more information becomes available.