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Virgin Galactic Crash Raises Questions About Private Space Ventures


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Sir Richard Branson is on the scene in Mojave and the investigation has begun into why Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crashed during a test flight yesterday. One pilot was killed. Another has serious injuries. Virgin Galactic has already sold tickets for passengers to fly aboard the rocket plane on a suborbital mission next year. A number of celebrities have reportedly bought tickets at $250,000 a seat.

Joel Glenn Brenner is a former Washington Post reporter who's been writing a book about the SpaceShipOne program. She joins us now from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

JOEL GLENN BRENNER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: We know you lost your friend in the crash.

BRENNER: Yes, I did. I lost a very dear friend and another who was seriously injured, although I did hear that he is doing fairly well - which is a miracle - and is expected to pull through.

SIMON: You know this program so well from your reporting and the book you've been working on and the people with whom you speak. Did you know of any doubts about the rocket that they tested yesterday, SpaceShipTwo?

BRENNER: I did. You know, it was a brand new rocket that they were using yesterday, and in fact, yesterday's flight test was the very first time that they were lighting this new rocket. And it is this new rocket, I have no doubt, that was the cause of yesterday's explosion.

SIMON: They were using a new fuel mixture, too, as I understand.

BRENNER: Yes, there were several changes that were made. And they had never been tested in flight before. They'd been tested on the ground and they appeared to do the job on the ground. But you can never tell how something's going to behave in flight. And there were some people, I have to tell you, who were quite concerned about how this was all going to react in flight.

SIMON: Obviously, we'll remind our audience that people are going to be investigating this in the months and I suspect years that proceed. What do you think happens, based on what you know, to the Virgin Galactic program now?

BRENNER: I do not believe that Virgin Galactic will be in the business of taking people into suborbital space in the near future, and by that, I mean the next five years. They do have a future in space, however. The WhiteKnightTwo, which is the name of the airplane that launches the space ship, survived yesterday. It was unhurt. That airplane is a very special airplane, and it can fly up to 60-, 70,000 feet.

SIMON: Ms. Brenner, earlier this week, the Antares rocket blew up shortly after liftoff. As you know, the private space companies have hired big names and very good people. But are questions going to be asked about if they have the resources in private space ventures to succeed?

BRENNER: Questions like that are going to be asked, and I would say that the answer is a resounding yes. And these two accidents should not point to the failure of private space. And I do believe that the future of space lies in the hands of the private sector. And it's only in the private sector where you have market forces that are designed to keep everybody focused on the bottom line. And that is not a bad thing.

It's a bad thing when people aren't being forthcoming about what's happening within their corporations. And I don't believe, in this particular case, that Virgin has really portrayed themselves in the right light. They've been nothing but optimistic, and behind closed doors there's been a lot of technical difficulties.

SIMON: Joel Glenn Brenner, former Washington Post reporter. Thanks very much for being with us.

BRENNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.