RICHARD Branson's space tourism dreams suffered a shattering blow tonight when one of his pilots was killed in a test flight and another was severely injured.
Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered test craft SpaceShipTwo slammed into the Mojave Desert in California after a fatal fault caused a catastrophic failure.
At least one witness reported the spacecraft exploded in the air soon after the rocket engine was ignited, though Branson's company said only that there had been an "in-flight anomaly".
Sir Richard Branson said his thoughts are with all those at Virgin Galactic and partner business Scaled after the SpaceShipTwo crash, adding: "Thanks for all your messages of support. I'm flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team."
SpaceShipTwo was on a test flight conducted by Virgin Galactic's partner company Scaled Composits when the spacecraft crashed. It was its first powered flight since January, the Mojave Air and Space Port said.
In a statement issued shortly before the pilots were found by a search, Virgin Galactic said: "During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.
"We will work closely with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so."
Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the fatal flight, said the spacecraft was released from the cargo plane that carries it to high altitude, ignited its rocket motor then exploded.
Branson's company has been offering tickets for space flights since 2005 and several hundred people have already paid deposits. The aim of the project is to create vehicles which can carry tourists into space without the need for travellers to have special expertise or exhaustive training.
In 2012 SpaceCraftTwo became the first commercial vehicle since Concorde to break the speed of sound when it flew at Mach 1.22.
It was designed to be carried by a cargo aircraft up to 50,000 feet, in the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere, before being released to engage its rocket engine and fly the remaining distance into Space.
On its website Virgin Galactic said that safety was a priority and that Scaled Composits had a record "second to none".
It stated that one of the advantages of the design was safety: "If there were any problems during the boost phase, the rocket motor could simply be shut down and the spaceship would return as a glider to the runway."
Virgin Galactic said its approach to space tourism was "predicated on safety" and stated: "Safety is Virgin Galactic's North Star. It is at the heart of the design of our new vehicles and will be ingrained in the culture of our space line operation."
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