MOJAVE (CBSLA.com) — One person was killed and another suffered major injuries after an aircraft used by Virgin Galactic for space travel experimentation crashed Friday during a test flight, authorities confirmed.
SpaceShipTwo, carried by carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, launched at 9:19 a.m. from a location in the Mojave Desert, according to officials from Virgin Galactic, which is owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson.
The aircraft was released by WhiteKnightTwo about an hour later and flew freely by rocket power for the first time since January. Friday’s flight was SpaceShipTwo’s 55th and WhiteKnightTwo’s 173rd, according to the company.
Virgin Galactic then tweeted the spaceship experienced some kind of in-flight abnormality.
KCAL9’s Peter Daut spoke with witnesses at the scene of the crash.
Several law enforcement agencies including the California Highway Patrol and Kern County’s sheriff and fire departments responded to the scene.
“One crew member was treated on the scene and was transported to the Antelope Valley Hospital,” explained Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stuart Witt.
Kern County Fire Department Capt. Tom Ellison told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO the aircraft landed in a remote region of the Mojave.
“This is a vast area, and from my vantage point, I’m not even able to see any wreckage,” Ellison said. “I understand that it’s scattered throughout a two-mile area.”
A statement released by Virgin Galactic on Twitter read: “Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today. During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.
“The WhiteKnight Two carrier aircraft landed safely. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so.”
Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft explode in flight.
The FAA released the following statement: “Just after 10 a.m. PDT today, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft.
“Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. Under a voluntary cooperative agreement with the FAA, the NTSB is leading the accident investigation with FAA support.”
Branson tweeted he will be in the Mojave as soon as possible.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides reported at a press conference that Branson is expected to arrive in Mojave by tomorrow morning.
SpaceShipTwo is designed for space tourism and underwent its first round of testing Friday after its engines were approved by federal regulators earlier this month.
When fully approved for space travel, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers.
Hundreds of people, including celebrities Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, among others, have already paid $250,000 each for the 15-minute flight when it becomes operational.
The NTSB is expected to arrive around 7:30 a.m. Saturday to assist in the investigation, which is expected to take several days to complete.