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Deadly Mojave explosion rattles fledgling space tourism industry

Virgin Galactic says the industrial accident's effect on the first commercial spaceflights will be 'minimal.'

August 27, 2007|From the Associated Press

As a female voice coos, "Welcome to space," six passengers in skintight spacesuits unbuckle their seat belts and somersault in zero gravity, occasionally peeking back at Earth through the private spaceship's large portholes.

Virgin Galactic showed off this animated video promoting the weightless joys of commercial space travel at a trade show for experimental aircraft last month.

But the excitement was overshadowed three days later when a deadly flash explosion rocked a Mojave Desert facility where top-secret tests were underway for Virgin's yet-unbuilt spaceship.

The accident at the remote site run by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan rattled the fledgling space tourism industry, which has enjoyed a honeymoon period since 2004 when Rutan launched SpaceShipOne, the first private manned rocket, into space.

It also offered insight into how two pioneering companies that forged an unlikely partnership two years ago to fly civilians to space reacted to the tragedy.

In a reversal of roles, Richard Branson's publicity-seeking Virgin Galactic kept a low profile while its usually silent partner, Rutan's Scaled Composites, took to the Internet to mourn its workers.

Some industry experts believe Virgin Galactic is following the right strategy because the accident was of an industrial nature and not directly related to spaceflight. But eventually customers and the public will demand answers, they say.

"It's natural for a company to not be out there talking immediately afterward. I don't think that would be good PR," said Kathleen Allen of USC's Marshall School of Business, who follows the commercial space industry.

Virgin Galactic did privately contact its prized customers known as founders, who have paid $200,000 to be among the first to experience four minutes of weightlessness.

Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's astronaut liaison, reassured the founders in an e-mail that the accident's effect on the first commercial spaceflights -- expected in late 2009 or 2010 -- would be "minimal" and that it was "business as usual."

In a telephone interview, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said it was not the company's place to comment because the blast occurred in Rutan's backyard. He added that four new customers have signed up since the accident and none of the customers has asked for a refund.

"It hasn't affected Virgin Galactic as a business at all," Whitehorn said. "It hasn't put a stop to anything."

The Mojave accident invoked memories of NASA's Apollo 1 tragedy 40 years ago in which three astronauts were killed in a flash fire during a routine launch pad test. The accident forced NASA to temporarily halt its space race with the Soviet Union and make design changes that led to the successful moon landings.

In Scaled Composites' case, three technicians died and three others were critically injured while performing a routine cold-flow test of nitrous oxide that did not involve a rocket firing. The company, which has done the test numerous times before without a problem, uses the chemical as an oxidizer in its spaceship's hybrid rocket motor.

California occupational safety regulators are investigating the July 26 explosion and have six months to complete a report.

The first fatalities of the new space race stunned the commercial space community, which until now has spoken about risks in abstract terms.

Exactly how the accident will affect other companies building their own spaceships is unclear because most are working on different propulsion technologies. However, the Personal Spaceflight Federation, made up of more than a dozen private space companies, pledged to plow ahead despite the tragedy.

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