In his first live remarks since the Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo crash on 31 October, Richard Branson linked the future of the Virgin Galactic space tourism venture to the results of the investigation.
“Once we find out what went wrong if we can overcome it we’ll make absolutely certain the dream lives on,” says Branson.
Branson founded the Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites project in 2004 with plans to launch tourists into surborbital space three years later. Instead, the project has faced numerous setbacks, even as the number of paid deposit holders swelled to more than 700.
Previous setbacks included the 2007 fuel test explosion that killed three employees and the switch earlier this year to a new fuel formulation replacing a rubber-based solid fuel with a plastic.
The future of the Virgin Galactic programme never seemed more uncertain, however, after the images showing the in-flight break-up of SpaceShipTwo shortly after engine ignition over the Mojave desert. The spacecraft was conducting its fourth powered flight test and first using the plastic solid fuel mixture with nitrous oxide.
A few seconds after releasing from WhiteKnightTwo at around 45,000ft, the engine ignited. Pictures taken from the ground show there was an explosion only seconds after engine ignition.. The inflight breakup scattered debris over a wide area of the Mojave desert. The incident reportedly killed Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury and severely injured Pete Siebold.
Speaking to reporters at the Mojave Air and Space Port on 1 November, Branson said the company “owes it to our test pilots” to understand what caused the accident. But he stopped short of promising to finish the programme no matter what the investigation concludes caused the explosion.
“It’s fair to say all 400 engineers who work here - and I think most people in the world – would love to see the dream living on,” Branson says.
So far, Virgin Galactic’s backlog of SpaceShipTwo deposit holders have not publicly distanced themselves from the company. Branson said that Virgin Galactic even received a deposit from a new customer after the crash yesterday, although he called it a gesture of support for the progrmame.
“We would love to finish what we started some years ago, and I think pretty well all our astronauts would love to finish it,” Branson says.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation team arrived at the crash site on 1 November to begin collecting information. The NTSB has named aviation investigator Lorenda Ward to lead the inquiry into the SpaceShipTwo crash.