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Virgin Galactic’s ‘SpaceshipTwo’ had ‘in-flight separation’ before crash

The Virgin Galactic test flight that crashed in California’s Mojave desert last week began breaking apart mid-air, according to officials from the National Transportation Safety Board, which launched its investigation Saturday.

Wreckage from Friday’s SpaceShipTwo crash, including the aircraft’s fusilage, was found dispersed over a five-mile area stretching northeast to southwest in the desert.

“That spread of the data of the debris field tells us that it was an in-flight separation, and of course the question is why did that happen, so that’s what we are exploring, that’s what are investigators are examining,” NTSB Acting Chairman, Christopher Hart, said in a press conference Saturday night.

The crash resulted in the death of one pilot, identified as 39-year-old Michael Alsbury, according to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in a statement Saturday.

Another pilot, 43-year-old Peter Siebold, sustained moderate to major injuries from the crash, according to the KCSO. Siebold is being treated at Antelope Valley Hospital.

Hart said in his press conference that doctors deemed Siebold not yet medically fit to be interviewed by crash investigators.

According to Hart, the on-site investigation of the crash will take about four to seven days; the investigation in total may last up to a full year.

In a statement Friday from Virgin Galactic, the company said that its partner, Scaled Composites, was conducting a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo, when the vehicle experienced a “serious anomaly.” The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, used to aid SpaceShipTwo in its launch, landed safely.

Four hundred engineers work at Virgin Galactic, according to its founder, Richard Branson. Scaled Composites, an air vehicle design and manufacturing company, was responsible for the first private manned spacecraft mission in 2004.

Both pilots involved in the crash were employees of Scaled Composites. Branson mentioned that he had never met Alsbury, but praised the work of all test pilots during a press conference Branson held on Saturday morning.

Virgin Galactic had sold more than 700 tickets for the space flight at $250,000 each as of the end of April 2014, according to Mashable.

A ticket entitles the holder to a two- to three-hour journey – a little over 62 miles – from Earth, in a spaceship along with five other passengers, The Wall Street Journal reported in November of 2013.

“Once we’ve found out what went wrong, if we can overcome it,” Branson said at Saturday’s press conference. “We’ll make absolutely certain that the dream lives on.”