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Sir Richard still set on space trip

Sir Richard Branson has insisted he still intends to travel to space with his family on the Virgin Galactic despite the fatal crash during a test flight.

US investigators say have not ruled out the possibility of pilot error on board SpaceShipTwo, which crashed in the Mojave Desert in California on Friday, killing co -pilot Michael Alsbury, 39.

Sir Richard, the billionaire tycoon behind the project, said surviving pilot Peter Siebold, 43, escaped serious injury and should be out of hospital in the next few days.

He said Virgin Galactic could "move forward" despite the disaster as he vowed to travel on board the space flight with his relatives once safety tests have been completed.

Sir Richard told Sky News: " We've spent many, many years building a spacecraft, a mothership, a space port, that I think can do the job and do the job safely.

"We will not start taking people until we've finished a whole massive series of test flights and until myself and my family have gone up, and until we feel that we can safely say to people 'we're ready to go'."

He added: "All I can say is we will not fly members of the public unless we can fly myself and family members.

"We need to be absolutely certain our spaceship has been thoroughly tested - and that it will be - and once it's thoroughly tested and we can go to space, we will go to space.

"We must push on. There are incredible things that can happen through mankind being able to explore space properly."

Sir Richard also criticised the "irresponsible innuendo" in some of the reports of the crash, including claims there had been a mid-air explosion and that some engineers had left the project over safety concerns.

"It was incredibly hurtful to the 400 engineers who have worked so gallantly at Virgin Galactic," he said.

"It was insulting. If the press had looked at the photographs they would have seen full fuel tanks and engines all intact on the ground and yet they were talking about a massive explosion.

"They were talking about people ejecting out of the plane and ejector seats. We don't have ejector seats.

"It was the British press at its worst and some of them should hang their heads in shame."

Sir Richard said there was "overwhelming global support" for the project and he had received hundreds of supportive emails, including two people who signed up for flights on the day of the disaster.

"I'm absolutely convinced Virgin Galactic has a great future," he added.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is leading the probe into the crash, has revealed that seconds before the crash a safety device to slow the descent of the craft had been deployed prematurely.

Investigators found that the spaceship's "feathering" system - which lifts and rotates the tail to create drag - was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed.

The system of deployment is a two-step process, but Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB, said that, while the co-pilot unlocked the system, the second step occurred "without being commanded".

"After it was unlocked, the feathers moved into the deployed position and two seconds later we saw disintegration," he told a press conference.

Mr Hart said investigators would look at a wide range of issues including training, the spacecraft's design and whether there was pressure to continue testing, over the coming months to determine the cause of the crash.

Asked whether investigators were "edging" towards the possibility of pilot error, Mr Hart replied: "We're not edging towards anything. We're not ruling anything out.

"We're looking at all of these issues to determine what was the root cause of this mishap.

"We are looking at a number of possibilities including that possibility (pilot error)."

Virgin Galactic - owned by Sir Richard's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi - plans to fly passengers to altitudes more than 62 miles (100km) above Earth.

The company, which sells seats on each prospective journey for 250,000 US dollars (£156,000), has denied reports that it ignored safety warnings ahead of the test flight crash.

In a statement, the company said: "At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our 'North Star'. This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue."

Sir Richard later defended Virgin Galactic's staff after it emerged concerns were raised about the safety of the project.

Geoff Daly, an engineer, had filed complaints with several American government agencies over the use of nitrous oxide to power the spaceship's engine.

But the Virgin boss told Channel 4 News: " We have 400 of the best engineers in the world working for Virgin Galactic.

"If somebody was to send us an email saying that they think we should be going in a different direction, I'm sure our engineers would look at it - they would either dismiss it, or they would take note."

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