Tragedy won't stop space flights, says Branson
Investigators study wreckage of doomed craft as speculation grows that weather was a factor
Sir Richard Branson yesterday offered refunds to any would-be astronauts who have paid £150,000 (€190,000) to travel into space after Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test run on Friday evening, killing one pilot and leaving a second seriously injured.
The strained-looking billionaire, who had rushed to the crash site in the Mojave Desert, California, said any of those who had signed up would get a refund if they wanted one. Hundreds of people, including celebrities such as Hollywood actors Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie, and businessman Bill Cullen, have reportedly reserved spaces on board the craft, which is designed to make a two-hour trip to 62 miles above the Earth.
But Branson said the tragedy would not deter Virgin from continuing with its space programme: "We would love to finish what we started some years ago and I think pretty well all our astronauts would love us to finish and would love to go into space. I think millions of people would one day love the chance to go to space, and this is the start of a long programme.
"In the early days of aviation there were incidents and then aviation became very safe. In the early days of commercial space travel there have been incidents and, we hope, one day the test pilots will enable people to go into space safely."
The pilots worked for a company called Scaled Composites, which was under contract to Virgin Galactic. In a statement on its website the company said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with both families."
Investigators are studying the wreckage for clues as to the cause of the crash. One factor could have been the weather. Minutes before the tragedy, Virgin Galactic, which is co-owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments PJS, tweeted: "We're hoping for a Halloween treat, but the weather might be playing tricks."
Another tweet stated: "We're still closely tracking the weather, mainly winds on the ground and aloft. Stay tuned for updates."
Minutes later, a third tweet announced "SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly" as it separated from its launcher, an aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo.
A key line of inquiry by the US National Transportation Safety Board, which arrived at the crash site last night, will be the craft's fuel system.
Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said this was the first time the rocket had been flown using a new fuel formulation: "It had been proven and tested on the ground many times."
Well-wishers took to Virgin Galactic's Facebook site to express hopes that the company would continue to pursue its goals. "This is a tragedy. But please, please don't ever give up on what you're doing," read one typical posting.
However, a small number questioned whether Virgin Galactic had "pushed too hard" in its pursuit of realising its dream, a claim denied by the company.
Whitesides promised that the company would learn lessons from the crash: "We owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles, as well as to those who've been working so hard on them, to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we'll do."