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Virgin Galactic 'Spaceship Two' Crashes In Calif.


An experimental commercial spacecraft broke up today over the Mojave desert. One of its pilots was killed, the other injured. This is the second commercial space accident this week. On Tuesday a rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded in Virginia. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel's following this latest incident. And Geoff, what can you tell us?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, the first thing to know is this is not a spaceship in the conventional sense. It's actually more like a space plane. It's built by Virgin Galactic, and what it's designed to do is sort of zip up to the edge of space, hang around there for a while and then float back to earth. It's for tourists. It's to give them the thrill of space without actually going into orbit.

CORNISH: What details are known about what happened?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this rocket plane is carried underneath a larger aircraft. And when that aircraft gets up to around 50,000 feet it drops the spaceship - Spaceship Two it's called. And this morning that's what happened. The spaceship fired its rocket motor as planned, but shortly after that it broke up in flight, according to local authorities. The debris is scattered over approximately a two-mile area. One pilot survived the accident but suffered major injuries and was airlifted out. The other one, as you mentioned, died.

CORNISH: Now, what could this mean for space tourism, right? This is an industry that's barely in its infancy.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's right. And Virgin Galactic was really a major, major player in this industry. They were already selling these flights for - well, they were advertising these flights for $250,000 each, and they already had deposits from over 700 people who wanted to go into space. And they were really touting the safety of this vehicle. They said the design was much safer than, you know, other things. They specifically said the engine was safe, and so this is going to lead to many, many questions about that safety and whether space tourism can succeed.

CORNISH: I want to take a minute and talk about the commercial space business more broadly because we mentioned that other explosion earlier this week. How does this or how could this affect that?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So the first thing to say is that the commercial rocket that exploded earlier this week was very different. It was a rocket going to the International Space Station, carrying supplies up there. And it exploded spectacularly shortly after lifting off the launch pad. It was like a really big rocket, like the top of rocket you imagine. That one was unmanned. No one was injured. But I think it's important to remember that accidents can happen no matter what. Don't forget, NASA lost two space shuttles. The Russian Space Agency periodically loses its spacecraft. So really, space is kind of a dangerous place to go, and I think the events of earlier this week and especially the events of today just really bring that home, that when you're trying to carry people into space, you're taking risks.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.