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Virgin Galactic’s tourist spacecraft crashes, kills co-pilot

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suffered an “in-flight anomaly” during a flight test Friday that left one pilot dead and may prove a major set back for space tourism.

The craft exploded at approximately 45,000 feet in the air around 10.a.m, while scheduled to test a new type of rocket fuel — a plastic blend rather than the previous rubber-based blend — specifically designed to boost performance.

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The pilot was able to eject from the wreckage in time and parachute to the ground below. The co-pilot was not able to escape from the spacecraft and died in the explosion. The survivor did sustain serious injuries and was taken to a local hospital.

The incident occurred just a few days after an Unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded in Virginia, capping a tragic week for commercial spaceflight in the United States.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, left for Mojave as soon as news of the crash broke.

Speaking about the fatal incident, Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides released a statement which said “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.”

Whitesides continued “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 endeavor, to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we’ll do.”

Fragments of the spacecraft are currently littering the desert landscape, thus a cleanup of the crash site is underway. The crash is likely a significant setback to the commercial space program. Virgin Galactic has already pre-sold tickets for future flights on the spacecraft, raising approximately $80 million from more than 700 people.

Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Justin Beiber, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Hanks and Katy Perry have all purchased $250,000 tickets to ride in the spacecraft. It’s possible that this crash will push back regular commercial space flights for another five to ten years.

In addition to Virgin Galactic’s internal investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating the events that led to the crash. At the time of the crash, only four men were cleared by the FAA to fly the SpaceShipTwo. WhiteKnightTwo, the craft that accompanies SpaceShipTwo during the launch process, was able to land safely today during the test flight.

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