Disaster struck high over the Mojave Desert this morning when Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo exploded at 50,000 feet during a routine test flight and crashed onto the desert floor near Koehn Lake. Two crew members were aboard the spacecraft at the time of the incident. One death has been confirmed, and the second pilot, who was able to eject via parachute from the craft, is in critical condition with severe injuries. Seconds after main engine burn SpaceShipTwo experienced an "in-flight anomaly" and burst into pieces before tumbling to the ground below.
SpaceShipTwo is part of Virgin's project to take paying passengers into sub-orbital space for the price of a $250,000 ticket and has been under scrutiny recently as issues with its engines caused the project to go on hiatus for the past nine months. Today's catastrophic flight was an important one for Virgin with the concept of space tourism gaining momentum and a major test of its new rocket engine, which recently underwent a change in its fuel mixture, switching from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix.
The FAA reported that "just after 10 a.m. PST ground controllers at the Mojave Space Port lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert, shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from its lift vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo." An investigation is underway and no names of the pilots have been released.
With this week's unmanned Antares rocket explosion still on our minds and multiple private commercial enterprises trying to get paying passengers into sub-orbit, this is another shocking reminder of the inherent dangers of spaceflight. How severe of a setback do you think this recent tragedy is, and how will it affect further flights and programs?