Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, part of an ambitious commercial space venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, crashed during testing Friday and broke into several pieces. One test pilot was killed and another was injured.

“Space is hard and today was a tough day,” said George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic.

Two pilots were aboard SpaceShipTwo and a California Highway Patrol spokesperson said two people were found near the crash in the desert north of California City and east of Mojave. One of the pilots had parachuted out of the aircraft, and another was located near the scene, California Highway Patrol said. Their names have not been released.

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which carries the SpaceShipTwo, landed safely. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on their way to the site, which the Kern County Sheriff said was spread over five debris fields over a 2- to 3-mile area.

Virgin Galactic has engaged in a nearly decade-long endeavor to produce the world’s first commercial space liner, which would make several trips a day carrying scores of paying customers into space for a brief journey.

It announced an agreement in May with the Federal Aviation Administration that helped clear the path to send paying customers on a suborbital flight by setting parameters for how routine missions to space will take place in national airspace.

Friday’s test was the company’s first rocket-powered test flight in nine months. Scaled Composites was conducting the test flight in partnership with Virgic Galactic, and its CEO said the flight was using a new fuel formation that had been tested on the ground.

In January, SpaceShip­Two reached 71,000 feet — its highest altitude so far.

Virgin Galactic has done its testing for the spacecraft in the Mojave Desert at Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The crash was the second catastrophe in the commercial space industry in a week. On Tuesday night, an unmanned rocket exploded just seconds after liftoff from a Virginia launch pad.

The $200 million rocket, owned by Orbital Sciences, was carrying supplies to the space station. No one was injured in that explosion.

Virgin Galactic’s plans have been repeatedly delayed. Branson said earlier it was “on the verge” of going.