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Explosion Kills Three at Mojave Air and Space Port

Explosion Kills Three at Mojave Air and Space Port
Aerospace designer Burt Rutan talks as Kern County fire chief Michael Cody looks on during a news conference near the site of an explosion that killed three people and critically injured three others,Thursday, July 26, 2007, at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif.
(Image: © AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.)

Story Updated at 7:25 p.m., July 27, 2007

The July 26 test stand accident at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Calif., that killed three Scaled Composites employees and injured threeothers stunned the community of entrepreneurial companies there and around the United States.

As the company dealt with the loss and injuries to itsemployees the full impact of the accident on Scaled Composites? operations wasleft up in the air. Not surprisingly, the immediate focus of the company, itspartners and its competitors was focused on the injuries and loss of life.

?We have heard the news of a serious incident at ScaledComposites at Mojave Airport. We extend our deepest sympathies to thoseinvolved and their families. We will await results of the investigation byScaled Composites and the proper authorities before making any furthercomment.? said Alex Tai, vice president of operations for Virgin Galactic, theBritish company that is working with Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipTwo, avehicle that is being designed to take tourists on rides into suborbital space.

?Northrop Grumman extends our condolences to the people ofScaled Composites and share in their grief and sadness with the loss andinjuries of their co-workers,? Northrop Grumman spokesman Dan McClain said in astatement issued July 27.

Northrop Grumman Corp. agreed July 5 to increase its stakein Scaled Composites ? the builder of the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and ahost of record-breaking aircraft ? from 40 percent to 100 percent.

McClain, who declined to disclose the value of the deal,said July 20 the company expected to close the purchase in August pending theapproval of U.S. regulatory authorities. McClain said in his July 27 e-mailthat the company would not make any additional statements ?at this time? aboutthe accident and how it might or might not affect that deal.

In an interview July 21, McClain said the partnershipbetween Scaled Composites and the Virgin Group on The Spaceship Co. would beunchanged by the transaction. He said Scaled Composites founder and presidentBurt Rutan would remain at the helm and lead Scaled Composites and the entiremanagement team would be kept in place.

?It will continue in its current operating model as aseparate entity within Northrop Grumman,? he said.

Regarding the benefit to Northrop Grumman by the ownershipof Scaled Composites, McClain added: ?First of all, both Northrop Grumman andScaled Composites felt that Scaled would benefit from the broader resourcesthat Northrop Grumman can bring. But, in particular, Northrop Grummanrecognized the innovative and entrepreneurial qualities of Scaled Composites asa good fit with our company?s efforts to define the future of aeronautics andspaceflight.?

According to an article published in the July 27 edition ofthe Los Angeles Times, Rutan said during a July 26 press conference that theaccident occurred during propellant flow testing on SpaceShipTwo, the first ofa fleet of suborbital space tourism vehicles Scaled Composites plans to buildas part of a joint venture with Sir Richard Branson?s Virgin Group. Accordingto the story, Rutan said such tests also had been performed ?a lot? duringdevelopment of the company?s Ansari X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne vehicle withoutincident.

According to Bill Deaver, editor and publisher of the MojaveDesert News, Stuart Witt, general manager of the Mojave Spaceport, hasannounced that he is setting up an independent commission to study and reporton the incident.

In the wake of the explosion, Witt issued the followingstatement:

?Today, as we are focused on the human side of this mishapwe can?t lose sight of what it is we choose to do and to whom we serve. Ournation enjoys the safest transportation system the world has known, largelybecause people like the ones who populate the companies engaged in systemsresearch and testing at Mojave, Edwards and China Lake choose this location topractice their craft. I'm proud to be a member of that family and proud of thebenefit we deliver to our nation and the world,? Witt stated.

?Having said that, it is very difficult at this moment tosee past the immediate. I appreciate and thank the many who support us at thistime,? Witt added.

In response to an e-mail from Space News Jeff Greason,president of XCOR Aerospace, which also is based at Mojave said: ?The XCOR teammourns the loss of our colleagues in the course of Scaled Composites? testactivities. They were valued members of the Mojave community who gave theirlives to open a new era of private space enterprise. They were also ourfriends, and we will miss them.?

Greason said the XCOR team has ?the highest regard for theachievements of the Scaled Composites team. Throughout the accidentinvestigation and beyond, our thoughts will be with those injured and thefamilies of those lost ? Our efforts to open the opportunity for space travelto civilians will continue.?

XCOR engages in research, development and production ofreusable rocket-powered, horizontal launch vehicles for suborbital, andultimately, orbital travel.

In an interview with Space News, one veteran rocketresearcher said it was a ?bad day? on a lot of levels and ?a wake-up call formany folks ? in this field ... ?The impacts will be far reaching beyond justthe Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic organizations. It will be interestingto see if the advocates of hybrids on the basis of safety still can maintainthat position.?

SpaceShipTwo, like SpaceShipOne, is expected to use a hybridmotor that with nitrous oxide as an oxidizer and hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene(HTPB or rubber) as the fuel.

Scaled Composites has ramped up to more than 250 employees,about twice the number of individuals from just three years ago, Rutan said inan interview earlier this year. A significant percentage of those people areassigned to the suborbital space travel business that is being developed in thejoint venture with Virgin Galactic knows as the Spaceship Co.

SpaceShipTwo is being designed to carry two pilots and sixpaying passengers into suborbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness. Acarrier aircraft known as the WhiteKnight2, will carry SpaceShipTwo to analtitude of 15 kilometers before releasing it to soar to suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic has ordered five SpaceShipTwo spacecraftwith options for another seven-plus WhiteKnight2 carrier aircraft. Both theWhiteKnight2 and SpaceShipTwo vehicles are being constructed by ScaledComposites of Mojave, Calif.

The first flight of WhiteKnight2 has been targeted for 2008.

The initial Virgin Galactic spaceflights will operate fromthe Mojave Air and Space Port.

In a speech in Washington July 21 at the Space FrontierFoundation?s event ?Newspace 2007: Accelerating Change? Tai said VirginGalactic ultimately hopes to have a number of space ports and space vehiclesfrom which to choose but will begin initially with SpaceShipTwo operating outof Mojave.

The accident had immediate ramifications for another state?sspaceport.

Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico SpaceportAuthority, issued a statement late July 26 that a press event announcing the winnerof a major contract in the building of that state?s Spaceport America, slatedfor July 27, was canceled.

?In light of the tragedy at Mojave Air and Space Port, wefeel that it is important now to turn our complete attention, prayers andthoughts to the families and friends of the workers who lost their lives,? Homansstated. ?Therefore, we are postponing Friday?s press conference until a laterdate to be announced.?

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