Crash won't halt space tourism

Cape Canaveral - The wait for paying passengers to see Earth from the vantage point of space looked a lot longer on Friday, following the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic's first spaceship, but aspiring space tourists did not appear to be lining up for refunds.

About 800 people already have paid or put down deposits for rides on SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital spaceship owned by Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, which aims to be the first commercial space ride for tourists. Tickets sell for $250,000 (R2.76m).

SpaceShipTwo broke up during a test flight in Mojave, California on Friday, killing one of two pilots. The Virgin accident came three days after an unmanned Antares rocket owned and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded 15 seconds after liftoff in Virginia.

Branson on Saturday vowed to find out what caused his space tourism company's passenger spaceship to crash, but expressed a desire to press on with the dream of commercial space flight.

Michael Alsbury, 39, has been identified as the pilot who died in the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, and the surviving pilot is Peter Siebold, 43, the Kern County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

Branson arrived in California's Mojave Desert to meet his Virgin Galactic team and federal officials who were opening their investigation into Friday's accident.

"We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong," Branson said during a news conference in Mojave.

"If we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on," he said.

No refunds

Hours after the Friday crash, Carmella Sears, an accredited Virgin Galactic "space agent" at Mansour Travel Co in Beverly Hills, California, had not heard any customers asking for refunds, and she did not expect to.

Although Hollywood celebrities including Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie have signed up for trips, her two customers are more ordinary people into extreme sports and adventures. Space flight, she said, "is definitely on their bucket list. It is something they really, really want to do."

One waiting passenger, XPRIZE Foundation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Peter Diamandis, said he would trust Virgin to keep him safe when his turn arose. The precursor ship to SpaceShipTwo won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by sending the first privately owned manned ship into space in 2004.

"This is what exploring is all about. We risk our lives for what we believe in. This is the American way - the explorer's way. I for one, am proud to be a Virgin Galactic client," he said in a statement.

The accident may prompt Congress to broaden the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of the commercial suborbital spaceflight industry, which lobbied hard for a moratorium on passenger safety regulation until October 2015.

The two accidents in one week also deepened concerns about reliance on private space companies for commerce and government.

"I still believe we have to move to a commercial model... but the SpaceShipTwo (accident) is going to make that difficult," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy expert with the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

"I think people are going to make a case for 'too much risk, too many shortcuts, not enough testing because profit is involved,'" she said.

Several minutes of weightlessness

Virgin Galactic promises travelers a journey lasting about two hours, with several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth framed against the blackness of space. SpaceShipTwo is carried to an altitude of about 13.7km by Virgin's White Knight Two carrier airplane and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to power it to about 100 km above Earth.

Virgin Galactic was considered the front runner among a handful of US companies pioneering the space frontier for well-heeled tourists.

A second US company, privately owned XCOR Aerospace, is developing a different type of suborbital spaceship that carries just one passenger seated alongside a pilot. Test flights of the spaceplane, called Lynx, are expected to begin early next year and rides sell for $95 000 (R1.05m).

Branson had targeted starting service as early as next February, but now the company needs a new space plane. A second is more than 60% finished, and it was not clear how Friday's accident would affect construction and the company's plans for passenger service.

Seven people have already traveled to the International Space Station as tourists, aboard Russian Soyuz rockets and paying tens of millions of dollars for journeys lasting up to 15 days.

David Logsdon, senior director of the Space Enterprise Council at technology industry group TechAmerica, said he expected the accidents to trigger congressional hearings and additional oversight of commercial human spaceflight and similar projects.

"It's a minor setback. It may slow things down a little -- a few years," Logsdon told Reuters, noting that rocket failures were common during the early days of the NASA space program.

"We've become much more risk averse, but space flight is an inherently risky business," he said.

Fun facts:

- SpaceShipTwo was designed and built by Scaled Composites, a Mojave, California-based subsidiary of defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

- Virgin Galactic is owned by Branson's London-based Virgin Group, with outside investment from Aabar Investments, which is controlled by the Abu Dhabi government.

- So far, Virgin Galactic has spent about $500 million developing SpaceShipTwo, and it expects to burn through another $100 million before commercial service starts.

- The company had planned on making its first test flight beyond the atmosphere before the end of year.

- Nearly 800 people, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and physicist Stephen Hawking, have signed up for the six-passenger flights, which were targeted to begin in 2015 but could now be delayed.

- Each passenger is to get a window seat with another window overhead.

- "I think most people in this world would love the chance to go to space if they could afford it and if we could guarantee them a return ticket," Branson told NBC last year.

- Flights are to leave from a sleek, purpose-built commercial spaceport under construction in New Mexico, designed by British-based Foster + Partners.

- Space travel is just the latest adventure for Branson, 64, a London-born high school dropout and billionaire. Branson is one of the world's most famous entrepreneurs whose business empire ranges from airlines to music stores and mobiles phones.

- His Twitter page describes him as a "Tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker, who believes in turning ideas into reality. Otherwise known as Dr Yes at @virgin!"

- In 1987, he became the first man to cross the Atlantic ocean in a hot air balloon, and accomplished the same feat across the Pacific in 1991. But his several attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon fell short.

- Branson has said he plans to be on the first space flight with his two children, though his daughter, Holly, is currently pregnant. The flight is due to be broadcast live on NBC.

- Branson was knighted in 2000 and has an estimated net worth of $4.9bn, making him Britain's sixth-richest resident, according to business magazine Forbes.

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