Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has vowed to find out what caused his space tourism company's passenger spaceship to crash during a test flight in California, killing one pilot and injuring the other, but expressed a desire to press on with the dream of commercial space flight.
US investigators have indicated that the test flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo on Friday was well-recorded, giving them an abundance of information to help determine what caused it to crash and spread debris over an 8km swath of the Mojave Desert, 150km north of Los Angeles.
Branson arrived in the desert to meet his Virgin Galactic team and federal officials who were opening their investigation into the accident, the second in less than a week involving a commercial space company.
"We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong," Branson said during a news conference. "If we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on."
Michael Alsbury (39) has been identified as the co-pilot who died in the crash of SpaceShipTwo. The surviving pilot is Peter Siebold (43).
Alsbury, who was found dead in the aircraft, was a project engineer and test pilot at Scaled Composites which built and designed the spacecraft for Virgin Galactic.
He was flying for the ninth time aboard SpaceShipTwo, including serving as the co-pilot on its first rocket-powered test flight on April 29 last year.
Siebold parachuted from SpaceShipTwo and was found with serious injuries by rescuers, who took him by helicopter to Antelope Valley Hospital.
He was alert and talking with his family and doctors yesterday, but National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) acting chairman Christopher Hart said his agency's investigators have not yet interviewed him.
"We are here to investigate this accident. While we are here there is nothing that stops this operation from continuing flying," he said.
An aircraft flying behind SpaceShipTwo collected video images and radar data, and a range camera at Edwards Air Force Base also recorded the failed test flight. The spaceship had video cameras and data storage cards on board.
Friday's crash was the second disaster in less than a week suffered by a private space company, dealing a blow to the fledgling commercial space industry that has been taking on work traditionally done by governments.
Last Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after lift-off from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.