Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spacecraft crashed in California, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. An eyewitness told the AP the ship exploded after its rocket motor ignited. One pilot’s body was found “still in seat,” and the other was medevaced to a hospital. Virgin Galactic changed the fuel mixture from rubber-based to plastic-based in an attempt to improve engine performance, but it’s not known if that caused the explosion. Officials said the National Transportation Safety Board will begin investigating the crash Saturday to determine what caused the lethal mishap. George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic, said that the company would fully support the government investigation. “The future rests in many ways on hard days like this,” he said.
Friday’s flight was a test in preparation for suborbital trips beyond 62 miles in altitude. The rocket is carried aloft by an airplane and it then detaches and fires a rocket to reach suborbital space. In 2004, SpaceShipOne made history as the first private manned vehicle to reach the boundary of space (62.5 miles, or 100 kilometers, above the Earth’s surface). The craft was built by Scaled Composites, a joint venture between Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aerospace designer Burt Rutan. (The feat won them the $10 million Ansari X Prize.) SpaceShipOne was retired in 2005, and Scaled Composites then went into business with Richard Branson’s Virgin to build SpaceShipTwo. In April, Branson said he was 90 percent certain he would go into space in 2014.