Virgin Galactic vows to continue despite major blow to the idea of space tourism

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is believed to have exploded during a test, leaving wreckage across the Mojave desert in California. Credit: Reuters

Sir Richard Branson will arrive at this spaceport in the Mojave desert shortly to meet and console the devastated Virgin Galactic team.

The loss of the spacecraft and the death of a test pilot is a tragedy for this small, tight-knit team that still dreams of making the journey into space accessible to travellers, not just astronauts.

The investigation into what happened here yesterday is only just beginning, but it is clear that soon after the spacecraft was released from its mothership and fired its rocket something went catastrophically wrong.

The immediate focus will be on the fuel mix because engineers have been experimenting with this in order to maximize the performance of the engines.

But right now the cause remains a mystery.

The debris rained down on this barren desert in California, and it seems a miracle that one of the pilots was able to eject and survive. He is in serious condition.

Despite this major blow to the idea of space tourism, Virgin Galactic executives say their project will not be abandoned and that the challenges will be overcome.

The wreckage of the Virgin Galactic spaceshipin the Mojave desert in California. Credit: APTN

Sir Richard Branson has excelled at marketing the dream of space travel for ordinary people, and after years of delays and setbacks, Virgin Galactic was tantalizingly close to achieving it, with the first passengers scheduled for next year.

But now it is all in jeopardy, as investigators try and find the cause of the crash, and as potential passengers are left to ponder whether rocketry and space travel are simply inherently too risky for recreational flying.

This has been a terrible week for the idea of commercializing the space industry - first the rocket destined for the International Space Station exploded in Virginia; and now this tragedy here in California. But space travel advocates insist these mishaps merely delay the future, and they promise to press on, chastened but undeterred.