(Reuters) – A suborbital passenger spaceship being developed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company crashed during a test flight on Friday at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, killing one crew member and seriously injuring the other, officials said.
The crash of the vehicle, undergoing its first powered test flight since January over the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles, came days after another commercial space company, Orbital Sciences Inc, lost a rocket in an explosion in Virginia moments after liftoff.
Television footage of the Virgin Galactic crash site showed wreckage of the spacecraft lying in two large pieces on the ground, and the company said the spacecraft was destroyed.
The co-pilot of the spaceship was killed in the crash, while the pilot, who ejected, was injured, Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt said. The pilot was found at the scene and taken to a local hospital, he said.
More than 800 people have paid or put down deposits to eventually fly aboard the spaceship, which is carried to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to about 62 miles (100 km) above Earth, giving passengers a view of the planet set against the blackness of space and a few minutes of weightlessness.
The vehicle is based on a prototype, SpaceShipOne, which 10 years ago won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for becoming the first privately developed manned spacecraft to fly in space.
“During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo,” Virgin said in a tweet, adding: “We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP.”
The crash was the second accident this week involving a commercial U.S. space company. On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.
In May, Virgin Galactic and spaceship developer Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp, switched to an alternative plastic-type of fuel grain for the hybrid rocket motor.
The crash was a major setback for Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of billionaire Branson’s London-based Virgin Group. SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft is aiming to make the world’s first commercial suborbital space flights.
Other companies developing passenger suborbital spacecraft include privately owned XCOR Aerospace, which is building a two-person spaceplane called Lynx, and Blue Origin, a startup space company owned by Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos.
Virgin Galactic also plans to use its White Knight Two carrier jets to launch small satellites and payloads into orbit.
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz from Cape Canaveral, Florida; Editing by David Adams and James Dalgleish)