Virgin Galactic defends safety record after fatal crash

Preliminary investigation suggests that Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke up after an onboard system deployed prematurely

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo
(Image credit: 2014 Getty Images)

Virgin Galactic has defended its safety record after its experimental spacecraft crashed on Friday, insisting that it takes great precautions to protect the security of its pilots, facilities and craft.

The company said that the principle of safety "has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue".

SpaceShipTwo crashed after an explosion occurred during a test flight above the Mojave desert in south eastern California on Friday, killing one of the pilots and seriously injuring another.

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The cause of the crash is still unknown, but US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) head Christopher Hart said that a preliminary investigation revealed that a device designed to slow the craft’s descent had deployed prematurely "without being commanded".

According to the NTSB’s findings, the ship’s fuel tanks showed "no signs of being compromised", the BBC reports. The full investigation is expected to take months to complete.

Investigations into the cause of the crash will focus on ‘training issues’, whether there was pressure to continue testing and ‘safety culture,’ according to Hart. "We’ve got many, many issues to look into much more extensively before we can determine the cause," he said.

Sir Richard Branson had hoped that SpaceShipTwo would send commercial passengers to the edge of space by the end of next year at a cost of $250,000 (£156,000) each. The ship broke up at 45,000ft on Friday during a test flight. The pilot, Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted to the ground, but his co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the incident.

Investigators say that it could take up to a year to conclusively determine the cause of the crash, but said that early analysis indicated that SpaceShipTwo’s "feathering system" which lifts and rotates the tail to create drag had activated without human intervention.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic said it was "dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our 'North Star' ... Everything we do is to pursue the vision of accessible and democratised space – and to do it safely ... Now is not the time for speculation."

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