Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said on Saturday he was determined to find out what caused a passenger spaceship being developed by his space tourism company to crash during a test flight in California's Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and injuring the other.
Branson arrived in California to meet his Virgin Galactic team and with federal officials who arrived to begin their investigation into Friday's accident, the second in less than a week involving a commercial space company.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo went down during a powered test flight, scattering debris over the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles.
"We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong," Branson said during a news conference in Mojave.
"If we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on," he said.
One pilot was killed and the other was able to parachute from the craft and was badly hurt, authorities said. The identities of the pilots have not yet been released.
A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site on Saturday to begin piecing together what led to the accident.
"This was a test flight, and test flights are typically very well documented in terms of data," said Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB. "We may have lots of evidence that will help us with the investigative process," he said.
Friday's crash was the second disaster in less than a week suffered by a private space company, dealing a blow to the fledgling commercial space industry that has been taking on work traditionally done by governments.
On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.
NEW TYPE of FUEL
The Virgin probe will likely will focus on SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine, which on Friday was flying with a new type of fuel for the first time, experts said.
The solid plastic-type propellant is ignited by nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas.
Virgin Galactic announced in May that it was replacing the rubber-based propellant used during the spaceship's three previous rocket-powered test flights to get better performance.
"We’ve tested both of these fuel grains a lot,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides told Reuters at the time.
Before Friday’s flight, SpaceShipTwo's last powered test flight was in January, though the rocket and its new propellant had passed multiple ground tests.
Virgin Galactic is a U.S. offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group founded by Branson, one of the world's most famous entrepreneurs whose business empire ranges from airlines to music stores and mobiles phones.
Both crew members of the spaceship were test pilots for Scaled Composites, the Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary that designed and built the spacecraft for Virgin and lost three other employees in a July 2007 ground test accident.
"While not a NASA mission, the pain of this (new)tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration," NASA, the U.S. space agency, said in a statement.