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These past few days have been sobering ones for the small but growing industry of commercial spaceflight. A pair of accidents, one of which was deadly, are prompting questions about cost, safety, oversight, and even the wisdom of this shift in space travel.
"NewsHour" science correspondent Miles O'Brien has the story.
Federal investigators are still combing through wreckage, as well as multiple data and video streams, in the wake of a deadly test flight high over California's Mojave Desert.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke apart in flight on Friday, scattering debris over five miles. Investigators now believe the ship's feathering system, which rotates the tail boom to create drag and slow descent, deployed early, and apparently without a command from the pilots.
The National Transportation Safety Board's chair, Christopher Hart, spoke last night.
CHRISTOPHER HART, Acting Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board:
The spaceship was released normally, and after it was released, shortly after it was released, the rocket engine ignited. About nine seconds after the engine ignited, the telemetry data told us, showed us that the feather parameters changed from lock to unlock.
A two-man crew was on board. The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. Pilot Peter Siebold, who parachuted to the ground, is hospitalized with serious injuries, but he's expected to recover.
It was the fourth powered flight for SpaceShipTwo, the first using a fuel derived from nylon. But the engine and the fuel and oxidizer tanks show no sign of an explosion. While there is no doubt that feathering during ascent would cause the vehicle to breakup, the NTSB will spend months trying to determine precisely what caused it to happen and what other factors might have contributed.
We will be looking at training issues. We will be looking at, was there pressure to continue testing? We will be looking at safety culture. We will be looking at the design, the procedure. We have got many, many issues to look into much more extensively before we can determine the cause.
Virgin Galactic says it has more than 700 customers on a waiting list, willing to part with as much as $250,000 for the short suborbital trip to the edge of space.
Today, the company's owner, the flamboyant billionaire Richard Branson, denied reports that his company cut corners on safety because of pressure to start paying flights, which he first promised would begin in 2008.
RICHARD BRANSON, Founder, Virgin Galactic:
I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments.
In a separate interview, Branson told British broadcaster Sky News he's still optimistic about the future of space tourism and he still says he will be on the first Galactic flight.
We can move forward. But we will not start taking people until we finish a whole mass — massive series of test flights and until myself and my family has gone up and until we feel that we can take — safely say to people we are ready to go.
Friday's crash came just three days after another big blow to the commercial space industry. An unmanned rocket toting supplies and science to the International Space Station exploded shortly after liftoff at Wallops Island, Virginia. It was owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation.
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