Sunday, November 02, 2014

Branson Vows Virgin Galactic Will Continue After Fatal Crash


By Chris Johnston and Nicky Woolf

Richard Branson vowed that his Virgin Galactic space programme would continue after Friday’s fatal Mojave desert crash, saying millions of people “would one day love the chance to go to space."

Speaking the day after the crash that killed one test pilot and left another badly injured, the entrepreneur said any would-be astronauts who had paid £156,000 for a seat could get a refund if they wanted one. 

But he added: “We would love to finish what we started some years ago and I think pretty well all our astronauts [passengers] would love us to finish and would love to go into space. I think millions of people in the world would one day love the chance to go to space and this is the start of a long programme.”

Branson, who rushed to California last night following the crash, looked strained as he read a statement the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where officials from the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) have started their investigation into what caused the SpaceShipTwo rocket to crash.

It suffered what the company called a “serious anomaly” after a test flight conducted by partner business Scaled Composites.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development at the spaceport. It was designed to be carried into the air by the WhiteKnightTwo jet and then released before igniting its rocket to travel into space, and then returning to Earth as a glider.

The flight took off at 9.30am local time on Friday and the two craft had separated at 10.10am.

Branson said he was determined to help authorities find out what caused the crash but likened the incident to the early days of flight. “In the early days of aviation there were incidents and then aviation became very safe,” he said. “In the early days of commercial space travel there have been incidents and then, we hope, that one day the tests pilots will enable people to go into space safely and that is our wish and desire.”

Branson damage control team along with bought and paid for "mainstream media" doing their best to squash this in the media

“We owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong and once we have found out what went wrong, if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain the dream lives on.”

Branson said Galactic had had numerous messages of support, including one new sign-up to the programme yesterday. “I think that they [passengers] have been patient to date, I think most of them will be patient longer,” he added.

“We may lose one or two, but it does not look like it. Anybody whoever wants a refund would be able to get a refund. We haven’t used the money.”

"Complementary tickets for the next flight!!!"

About 800 people including celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Tom Hanks have bought tickets for a Virgin Galactic flight. John Goodwin, a retired British businessman, said he remained confident that he would eventually go into space.

“This is new territory; inevitably there are going to be accidents. There are 300 brains in the Mojave desert who will rectify the problem,” said Goodwin.

Alan Stern, a former Nasa scientist, has also bought seats to fly on Virgin Galactic for $250,000 (£156,000) apiece but was not rethinking his plans.

Branson's last successful "launch"
“Let’s not be Chicken Littles here. I want to be part of the opening of this future frontier,” he said. Branson also hit out at people who have been commenting on possible causes of the incident, adding: “I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments.” The accident has sparked questions over the future of the venture and whether it could safely transport passengers to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and return them to the ground.

Prof Tim O’Brien of Jodrell Bank Observatory said there would now be a “major delay” to Galactic’s first passenger flight.

“This is difficult. This is dangerous. Something went wrong. This was the first flight using a new fuel, I believe,” he told the BBC.

However, the setback would not diminish humans’ desire to escape the pull of gravity, O’Brien said. “It’s hard to imagine a future in which humans are not travelling in space … Somehow we have to get from here to there; it will require a lot of work and it is still extremely dangerous.”

John Logsdon, retired space policy director at George Washington University, said: “It’s a real setback to the idea that lots of people are going to be taking joyrides into the fringes of outer space any time soon. There were a lot of people who believed that the technology to carry people is safely at hand.”

Tom Bower, a biographer of Branson, said the rocket being used by Galactic was “very crude”. He claimed engineers working on the project had told him the craft was “very dangerous”.

“What happened yesterday, very sadly for the pilot obviously, was both predictable and inevitable,” Bower told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It was always dangerous and unfortunately was always going to end in tragedy.”

George Whitesides, chief executive and president of Virgin Galactic, said: “We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today and we are going to get through it.”

Both crew members were test pilots for Scaled Composites, the Northrop Grumman division that designed and built the spacecraft for Virgin and lost three other employees in a July 2007 ground test accident.

Virgin Galactic said SpaceShipTwo was powered by a fuel mix that had not previously been used in flight, although it had been tested extensively on the ground. The company was unable to say whether the change to the fuel mix offered an explanation for the accident.

The crash served as another stark reminder of the dangers of space launches, three days after an unmanned rocket on supply mission to the international space station exploded seconds after takeoff from a Nasa launch facility in Virginia.

Branson also hit out at people who have been commenting on possible causes of the incident: “I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments.”

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