Fatal explosion hits Virgin space programme
Three workers killed, three injured at Mojave spaceport
Three employees of a pioneering spaceship company were killed and another three badly hurt when a propellant system blew up during testing in California yesterday.
The explosion happened at Mojave Air and Space Port at about 2:30pm local time. It is believed to have involved a tank of nitrous oxide, to be used as fuel in the forthcoming SpaceShip Two rocket-plane.
SpaceShip Two is being developed by Scaled Composites, the company famous for winning the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 with a record-breaking pair of flights by the re-usable manned suborbital craft SpaceShip One.
Private rocket-plane SpaceShip One in flight.
Company founder Burt Rutan briefed the media in an evening news conference, reported by the Los Angeles Times.
"We felt it was completely safe," said Rutan, apparently visibly upset. "We had done a lot of these [tests] with SpaceShip One."
Rutan said the test being carried out had not involved any ignition of fuel. It had been intended merely to investigate flow rates through certain equipment.
Asked why the explosion had happened, he replied: "We just don't know."
The new spacecraft, under development by Scaled Composites, will be much bigger than its predecessor and able to carry passengers as well as flight crew. The intention is to offer suborbital tourist trips in a collaborative venture with Richard Branson of the Virgin biz empire, under the name "Virgin Galactic".
SpaceShip Two has been shrouded in secrecy since its announcement last year, a condition which Rutan said would remain unchanged for the present. The new ship "won't be unveiled until it's ready to fly", he told assembled reporters. ®
Nitrous Oxide? Take two.
Was there a fireball? I see "explosion" and "blew up" mentioned but no mention of anything actually catching fire. A decent sized tank storing just about any gas at high pressure will do a significant amount of damage and certainly kill or maim anyone standing close enough if, say, a weld fails catastrophically. Flying debris will make you just as dead as fire.
That could account for the apparent discrepancy between the contents of the tank and the result.
I bet it happened when they shut the valve!
Water hammer effect as valve closed, causes dieseling in pipe causing backpressure leading to decomposition in tank.
(needs a pressure release valve at shutoff valve - or a slower shutoff)
See this one:
Condolences to those affected
Not good, but as has already been said - it's not without risk (nothing's without risk, actually, they could have all been mown down by cars while crossing the road or killed in an industrial accident at plastics factory) and they still have a better Industrial Safety record than their competitors.
Three deaths after two successful sub orbital rocket flights is pretty good compared with NASA's bloody history (not to mention the Soviets' kill count). NASA, not satisfied with three-at-a-time with the Apollo missions had to build the shuttle to enable them to take out seven at a time...