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 National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the investigation into the doomed flight, has not yet stated if the feathers caused the crash. On Friday, scrutiny was placed on the never-before-flown mix of fuel Virgin Galactic has used. The Wall Street Journal reported SpaceShipTwo’s fuel tanks and engines were recovered “largely intact,” making an explosion less likely.
“If there was a huge explosion, it didn’t occur, I didn’t see it,” Mojave Spaceport CEO Stuart Witt, who was at the scene during the crash, said at a press conference Friday.
The pilot that died in the crash has since been identified as Michael Alsbury. He was a pilot for Scaled Composites for 13 years. He flew SpaceShipTwo during its first-ever powered flight in April 2013. Last week’s trip was the plane’s fourth powered flight.
“Beyond his skills as a pilot – including 1600 hours of flight time in research aircraft built by his colleagues at Scaled – Mike was a dear friend and inspiring colleague to the many many friends he left behind,” Virgin founder Richard Branson wrote on his blog. “My heart goes out to his parents, his wife and children, his sister and the rest of his family and friends.”
Alsbury’s co-pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured. Siebold is the director of flight operations at Scaled Composites.