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Space programme to go on: Branson


Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded and crashed in Mojave (AP)

Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded and crashed in Mojave (AP)

Sir Richard Branson poses with SpaceShipTwo at a Virgin Galactic hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave (AP)

Sir Richard Branson poses with SpaceShipTwo at a Virgin Galactic hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave (AP)

Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket exploded and crashed in Mojave (AP)

Sir Richard Branson said he will continue his Virgin Galactic space programme after the fatal Mojave Desert test flight crash, saying millions of people "would one day love the chance to go to space".

Speaking the day after the crash which killed one test pilot and left a second badly injured, the billionaire British tycoon said any would-be astronauts who had paid the £150,000 cost of a seat would get a refund if they wanted one.

But he added: "We would love to finish what we started some years ago and I think pretty well all our astronauts would love us to finish and would love to go into space.

"I think millions of people in the world would one day love the chance to go to space and this is the start of a long programme."

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood today named the pilot who died as 39-year-old Michael Alsbury, from Tehachapi, California.

Alsbury worked for Scaled Composites, the company developing the spaceship for Virgin Galactic.

Mr Youngblood named the surviving test pilot as Peter Siebold, 43. He said Mr Siebold was due to undergo surgery but had no further information about his condition.

Sir Richard rushed to California last night after news emerged of the crash.

He looked strained as he faced reporters at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where officials from the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) have started their investigation into what caused the SpaceShipTwo rocket to come down.

It suffered what the firm called a "serious anomaly" after a test flight conducted by Scaled Composites.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development at the spaceport. It was designed to be carried into the air by the WhiteKnightTwo jet and then released before igniting its rocket to travel into space, and then returning to Earth as a glider.

The flight took off at 9.30am local time (4.30pm GMT yesterday) and the two craft had separated at 10.10am (5.10pm GMT yesterday).

Sir Richard said he was determined to help authorities find out what caused the crash but likened the incident to the early days of flight.

He said: "In the early days of aviation there were incidents and then aviation became very safe.

"In the early days of commercial space travel there have been incidents and then, we hope, that one day the tests pilots will enable people to go into space safely and that is our wish and desire."

Sir Richard added: "We owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong and once we have found out what went wrong, if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain the dream lives on."

He said the company had had numerous messages of support, including one new sign-up to the programme yesterday.

"I think that they (astronauts) have been patient to date, I think most of them will be patient longer," he added.

"We may lose one or two but it does not look like it.

"Anybody whoever wants a refund would be able to get a refund. We haven't used the money."

He also hit out at people who have been commenting on possible causes of the incident, adding: "I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments."

Michael Alsbury, who was known as Mike, had worked for Scaled Composites in Mojave for 13 years and was a project engineer and test pilot, according to a biography provided last year for a Society of Experimental Test Pilots symposium where he was the keynote speaker.

The biography, posted online in July last year, said he had recently been the co-pilot for both SpaceShipTwo's first glide and first powered flight.

It said he held a degree in aeronautical engineering from California Polytechnic State University and was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and Society of Flight Test Engineers.

At the time he was said to have 15 years and more than 1,800 hours of flight experience and held single and multi-engine instrument commercial, glider commercial and single and multi-engine instrument flight instructor certificates.

Mr Alsbury's experience was said to span preliminary aircraft design, manufacturing, flight test planning and flight test support as a flight test engineer and test pilot.

He had logged more than 1,600 hours as test pilot and test engineer in Scaled Composites aircraft and had participated in the flight testing of nine different manned aircraft.

Scaled Composites tonight said Mr Siebold was "alert and talking".

A statement released by the firm said: "The Scaled Composites family lost a respected and devoted colleague yesterday, Michael Alsbury, who was the co-pilot for the test flight of SpaceShipTwo.

"Peter Siebold, the director of flight operations at Scaled Composites, was piloting SpaceShipTwo. He is alert and talking with his family and doctors.

"We remain focused on supporting the families of the two pilots and all of our employees, as well as the agencies investigating the accident. We ask at this time that everyone please respect the privacy of the families."

The Scaled Composites website says Peter Siebold is an aeronautical engineer, experimental test pilot and flight test engineer at Scaled Composites.

He holds a degree in aerospace engineering from California Polytechnic University and has been working at Scaled since 1996.

A design engineer specialising in avionics and data acquisition design and development, he was responsible for the development of the simulator, avionics/navigation system and ground control system for the SpaceShipOne program.

He has 17 years of flight experience with 2,000 hours in 35 different fixed wing aircraft and is an associate member of The Society of Experimental Test Pilots.