The crash of the vehicle, undergoing its first powered test flight since January over the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles, came days after another private space company, Orbital Sciences Corp, lost a rocket in an explosion moments after liftoff in Virginia.
The back-to-back accidents dealt a considerable blow to the fledgling commercial space launch industry, which has been taking on more work traditionally done by the U.S. government while expanding for-profit space markets, including tourism.
Television footage of the Virgin Galactic crash site showed wreckage of the spacecraft lying in two large pieces on the ground, and the company said the spacecraft was destroyed.
The co-pilot of the spaceship was killed in the crash, while the pilot, who ejected and parachuted to the ground, survived with serious injuries, Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt said. The pilot was found at the scene and taken to a local hospital, he said.
Branson himself said via Twitter that he was on his way to Mojave following the crash. “Thoughts with all @virgingalactic & Scaled,” he tweeted referring to the company, Scaled Composites, which designed and built the spacecraft for Virgin.
More than 800 people have paid or put down deposits to eventually fly aboard the spaceship, which is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released by Virgin’s White Knight Two carrier jet airplane. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to about 62 miles (100 km) above Earth, giving passengers a view of the planet set against the blackness of space and a few minutes of weightlessness.
The vehicle is based on a prototype, SpaceShipOne, which 10 years ago won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for becoming the first privately developed manned spacecraft to fly in space.
“During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo,” Virgin said in a statement, adding: “We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP.”
The crash was the second accident this week involving a commercial U.S. space company. On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.