A test flight of the SpaceShipOne went terribly wrong, resulting in an explosion that killed two people and critically injured four others, at the test site in the Mojave Desert, California. The ship, belonging to Scaled Components, is the first private manned rocket to reach space.
The airport site was used by the pioneering company to test the shuttlecock-shaped, hybrid rocket motor-powered craft that became the first private, piloted vehicle to reach space, designed by the American engineer Burt Rutan, an aviation legend and backed by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
Rutan, who heads Scaled but was away, rushed back to Mojave, where the explosion released nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, into the air, which called for the intervention of Haz-Mat teams. The scene was declared safe by the teams and fire authorities.
So far, no information about the victims was released because families were being notified. Rutan declared that the explosion did not occur during a rocket flight test, but during a test of the flow of nitrous oxide through an injector, part of a components test, designed to check the new rocket motor for the upcoming SpaceShipTwo.
This second ship and the mothercraft that will launch will be used in just a few years to fly tourists in space and let them experience microgravity. The Virgin Galactic Web site promises amateur astronauts a spacious cabin to float around in and large portholes to look at the curvature of the Earth, in exchange for $200,000.
All the company's offices and facilities in the area were closed and authorities did not allow access to the blast site. Rutan said that this type of test had been safely performed many times before during the program. "We were doing a test we believe was safe. We don't know why it exploded. We just don't know," he said.
Little additional information is known, as the company is yet to come up with a press release.