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 credit: 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 three others stunned the community of entrepreneurial companies there and around the United States.

As the company dealt with the loss and injuries to its employees the full impact of the accident on Scaled Composites' operations was left up in the air. Not surprisingly, the immediate focus of the company, its partners 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 those involved and their families. We will await results of the investigation by Scaled Composites and the proper authorities before making any further comment," said Alex Tai, vice president of operations for Virgin Galactic, the British company that is working with Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipTwo, a vehicle that is being designed to take tourists on rides into suborbital space.

"Northrop Grumman extends our condolences to the people of Scaled Composites and share in their grief and sadness with the loss and injuries of their co-workers," Northrop Grumman spokesman Dan McClain said in a statement issued July 27.

Northrop Grumman Corp. agreed July 5 to increase its stake in Scaled Composites, the builder of the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and a host 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 the approval of U.S. regulatory authorities. McClain said in his July 27 email that the company would not make any additional statements "at this time" about the accident and how it might or might not affect that deal.

In an interview July 21, McClain said the partnership between Scaled Composites and the Virgin Group on The Spaceship Co. would be unchanged by the transaction. He said Scaled Composites founder and president Burt Rutan would remain at the helm and lead Scaled Composites and the entire management team would be kept in place.

"It will continue in its current operating model as a separate entity within Northrop Grumman," he said.

Regarding the benefit to Northrop Grumman by the ownership of Scaled Composites, McClain added: "First of all, both Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites felt that Scaled would benefit from the broader resources that Northrop Grumman can bring. But, in particular, Northrop Grumman recognized the innovative and entrepreneurial qualities of Scaled Composites as a good fit with our company's efforts to define the future of aeronautics and spaceflight."

According to an article published in the July 27 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Rutan said during a July 26 press conference that the accident occurred during propellant flow testing on SpaceShipTwo, the first of a fleet of suborbital space tourism vehicles Scaled Composites plans to build as part of a joint venture with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group. According to the story, Rutan said such tests also had been performed "a lot" during development of the company's Ansari X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne vehicle without incident.

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

In the wake of the explosion, Witt issued the following statement:

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

"Having said that, it is very difficult at this moment to see past the immediate. I appreciate and thank the many who support us at this time," 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 team mourns the loss of our colleagues in the course of Scaled Composites' test activities. They were valued members of the Mojave community who gave their lives to open a new era of private space enterprise. They were also our friends, and we will miss them."

Greason said the XCOR team has "the highest regard for the achievements of the Scaled Composites team. Throughout the accident investigation and beyond, our thoughts will be with those injured and the families of those lost... Our efforts to open the opportunity for space travel to civilians will continue."

XCOR engages in research, development and production of reusable rocket-powered, horizontal launch vehicles for suborbital, and ultimately, orbital travel.

In an interview with Space News, one veteran rocket researcher said it was a "bad day — on a lot of levels — and a wake-up call for many folks in this field... The impacts will be far reaching beyond just the Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic organizations. It will be interesting to see if the advocates of hybrids on the basis of safety still can maintain that position."

SpaceShipTwo, like SpaceShipOne, is expected to use a hybrid motor 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 in an interview earlier this year. A significant percentage of those people are assigned to the suborbital space travel business that is being developed in the joint venture with Virgin Galactic knows as the Spaceship Co.

SpaceShipTwo is being designed to carry two pilots and six paying passengers into suborbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness. A carrier aircraft known as the WhiteKnight2 will carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 15 kilometers before releasing it to soar to suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic has ordered five SpaceShipTwo spacecraft with options for another seven-plus WhiteKnight2 carrier aircraft. Both the WhiteKnight2 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 from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

In a speech in Washington July 21 at the Space Frontier Foundation's event —Newspace 2007: Accelerating Change — Tai said VirginGalactic ultimately hopes to have a number of space ports and space vehicles from which to choose but will begin initially with SpaceShipTwo operating out of Mojave.

The accident had immediate ramifications for another state's spaceport.

Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, issued a statement late July 26 that a press event announcing the winner of a major contract in the building of that state's Spaceport America, slated for July 27, was canceled.

"In light of the tragedy at Mojave Air and Space Port, we feel that it is important now to turn our complete attention, prayers and thoughts to the families and friends of the workers who lost their lives," Homans stated. "Therefore, we are postponing Friday's press conference until a later date to be announced."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.