Branson on space venture: We want to 'finish what we started'

Despite a fatal crash marring Virgin Galactic's flight tests, Richard Branson says the venture will be worth it.

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Virgin Group founder Richard Branson plans to continue pursuing space travel as a viable market, despite the crash of SpaceShipTwo which caused a pilot's death.

The British entrepreneur's dreams of being the first major player in commercial spaceflight were challenged on Friday due to the crash of SpaceShipTwo, which broke up in midair during tests across California's Mojave Desert. After separating from the aircraft WhiteKnightTwo — used to transport the vehicle to cruising altitude — Virgin Galactic said "a serious anomaly" occurred which resulted in the accident. According to a tweet from the Associated Press, a witness saw the rocket exploded after ignition — on which a new type of fuel was being tested.

WhiteKnightTwo landed successfully.

Two pilots were involved in the crash. Thirty-nine year old Mike Alsbury was fatally wounded and 43-year-old Peter Siebold has been seriously injured. In a brief statement (.PDF), Scaled Composites said Siebold is "alert and talking with his family and doctors."

In a blog post, Branson said everyone at Virgin Galactic was "deeply saddened" by the events, and the firm will cooperate fully with authorities during the investigation. However, the crash has not stopped plans for commercial space tourism.

"We have always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project. We have been undertaking a comprehensive testing program for many years and safety has always been our number one priority," Branson said. "We are determined to find out what went wrong and are working with the authorities to get that information. It is too early for me to add any details of the investigation at this stage."

SpaceShipTwo had flown extensively in tests, and Mojave was due to be the rocket's 55th trip.

The US National Transportation Safety Board says an investigation into the crash could take up to a year — but Virgin Galactic is free to continue testing, according to the BBC.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides commented:

We owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles, as well as those who’ve been working so hard on them, to understand this and to move forward. And that is what we’ll do.

Virgin Galactic hopes to be at the forefront of future space travel. In April, the company said over 700 people had already booked a trip for up to $250,000 a passenger, including Hollywood names and Stephen Hawking. Branson originally hoped trips could launch in 2015, although the crash is likely to delay these plans.

To sum up his feelings on the accident, Branson said:

Space is hard — but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together.

In September , NASA awarded Space Systems, Paragon Space Development, Up Aerospace and Virgin Galactic contracts to carry payloads "near the boundary of space," with an overall aim of eventually making suborbital platforms commercially viable in the United States.

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