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Branson vow as crash pilot named

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson vowed today to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism rocket, killing one crew member and injuring another.

Speaking at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California where the craft was under development, Sir Richard gave no details of yesterday's accident and deferred to the federal National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), whose team had just arrived.

Authorities named the pilot killed during the test flight as Michael Tyner Alsbury, 39, of Tehachapi, California.

Mr Alsbury worked for Scaled Composites, the company developing the spaceship for Sir Richard's company.

The test pilot who survived was named as 43-year-old Peter Siebold and he is to undergo surgery. There were no other details on his condition.

"We are determined to find out what went wrong," Sir Richard said, asserting that safety has always been the top priority of the programme that envisions taking wealthy tourists to the edge of space for a brief experience of weightlessness and a view of Earth below.

More than a dozen investigators in a range of specialties were forming teams to examine the crash site, collect data and interview witnesses, NTSB acting chairman Christopher A Hart said.

Mr Hart said the investigation will have similarities to a typical NTSB probe as well as some differences.

"This will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch (accident) that involved persons onboard," he said, noting that the NTSB did participate in investigations of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.

Mr Hart said he did not immediately know the answers to such questions as whether the spaceship had flight recorders or the altitude of the accident, but noted that test flights are usually well documented.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo blew apart about 20 miles from the Mojave airfield after being released from a carrier aircraft yesterday.

It was the second setback for commercial space travel in less than a week.

On Tuesday, an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after lift-off from a launch site in Virginia.

The NTSB investigators are expected to head to an area about 20 miles from the Mojave airfield where debris from the spaceship fell over a wide area of uninhabited desert.

The spacecraft broke up after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the plane breaking apart.

Mr Alsbury was found dead inside the spacecraft and Mr Siebold parachuted out and was flown by helicopter to a hospital, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.

The accident occurred just as it seemed commercial space flights were near, after a period of development that lasted far longer than hundreds of prospective passengers had expected.

Sir Richard once envisioned operating flights by 2007. Last month, he talked about the first flight being next spring with his son.

"It's a real setback to the idea that lots of people are going to be taking joyrides into the fringes of outer space any time soon," said John Logsdon, retired space policy director at George Washington University.

Yesterday's flight marked the 55th for SpaceShipTwo, which was intended to be the first of a fleet of craft.

This was only the fourth flight to include a brief rocket firing. The rockets fire after the spacecraft is released from the underside of a larger carrying plane.

During other flights, the craft either was not released from its mothership or functioned as a glider after release.

At 60ft long, SpaceShipTwo featured two large windows for each of up to six passengers, one on the side and one overhead.

The accident's cause was not immediately known, nor was the altitude at which the blast occurred.

The first rocket-powered test flight peaked at about 10 miles above Earth. Commercial flights would go 62 miles or higher.

The problem happened about 50 minutes after take-off and within minutes of the spaceship's release from its mothership, said Stuart Witt, chief executive of Mojave Air and Space Port.

Virgin Galactic - owned by Sir Richard's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi - sells seats on each prospective journey for 250,000 US dollars (£156,000).

The company says that "future astronauts," as it calls customers, include Stephen Hawking, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand.

The company reports receiving 90 million US dollars (£56 million) from about 700 prospective passengers.

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