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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash: Police confirm identities of pilots

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson vowed Saturday to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism craft that killed one of two test pilots.

Mike Alsbury, 39, was found dead inside the debris of the spacecraft

Founder Richard Branson vows to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism rocket 3:06

Billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson vowed Saturday to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism craft that killed one of two test pilots, adding that while he remains committed to civilian space travel "we are not going to push on blindly."

In grim remarks at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the craft known as SpaceShipTwo was under development, Branson gave no details of Friday's accident and deferred to the National Transportation Safety Board, whose team had just arrived.

Thirty-nine-year-old Michael Alsbury, shown here in a file photo, has been identified as the pilot who died in the ill-fated test flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo on Friday. (David McNew/Getty Images)
"We are determined to find out what went wrong," he said, asserting that safety has always been the top priority of the program that envisions taking wealthy tourists six at a time to the edge of space for a brief experience of weightlessness and a view of Earth below.

"Yesterday, we fell short," he said. "We'll now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward."

It was a horrible day yesterday for everyone ... What's hard is the family is suffering the loss of their dad. And they were very tight.- Patricia Kinn, Alsbury's neighbour and peer

"We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong," he added. "If we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on."

Branson also criticized early speculation about crash causes. "To be honest, I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they're saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments."

Pilots identified

The pilot killed in the test flight was identified Saturday as Michael Tyner Alsbury, 39, of nearby Tehachapi. The surviving pilot is Peter Siebold, 43, who parachuted to safety and was hospitalized.

The second pilot who parachuted to safety was alert and talking with his family and doctors on Saturday. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Both worked for Scaled Composites, the company developing the spaceship for Virgin Galactic. Scaled Composite said Alsbury was the co-pilot for the test flight. Siebold, who was piloting SpaceShipTwo, "is alert and talking with his family and doctors," the company said in a statement.

Alsbury was flying for the ninth time aboard SpaceShipTwo, including serving as the co-pilot on its first rocket-powered test flight on April 29, 2013, according to his biography on the company's website.

Alsbury, a married father of two, was remembered Saturday by his peers as a "respected and devoted" colleague. 

Alsbury 'could do it all'

"Without mincing words or really embellishing anything ... I consider Mike Alsbury the renaissance man," said Brian Binnie, another test pilot who worked at Scaled Composites for 14 years before leaving the company in February.

"He could do it all. He was an engineer. He was a pilot. He worked well with others. He had a great sense of humour. I never heard him raise his voice or lose his cool."

Colleagues remembers Alsbury has a capable pilot and loving father of two young children. (Scaled Composites/Associated Press)

Alsbury's next-door neighbour in Tehachapi, Patricia Kinn, had known him for years and described him as a devoted father of a young son and daughter. The last time she saw him, he was playing with the kids in his yard.

"He was a very down-to-earth family man," Kinn said. "He was very humble. He never bragged, never boasted."

Kinn, who works in flight testing for another company, said the aerospace community is a close one connected with businesses at the Mojave Air and Space Port and nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

"It was a horrible day yesterday for everyone," she said "What's hard is the family is suffering the loss of their dad. And they were very tight."

NTSB to lead investigation

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 told a press conference at Mojave Air and Space Port.

"This will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch [accident] that involved persons on board," said Hart, noting that the NTSB did participate in investigations of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.

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.

Refunds for $250K tickets available

Virgin Galactic — owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi — plans to fly passengers to altitudes more than 99 kilometres above Earth. The company sells seats on each prospective journey for $250,000.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Scaled Composites inspect wreckage at one of the debris fields. (David McNew/Reuters)

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 from about 700 prospective passengers.

On Saturday, Branson said none of that money has been spent and that anyone who wanted a refund could get it. However, he said, no one has asked, and instead someone signed up on the day of the accident in a show of support.

At 60 feet long, SpaceShipTwo featured two large windows for each of up to six passengers, one on the side and one overhead. Branson once envisioned operating flights by 2007. Last month, he talked about the first flight being next spring with his son.

4th test flight with rockets

Friday'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 rocket fires after the spacecraft is released from the underside of a larger carrying plane. During other flights, the craft either was not released from its mother ship or functioned as a glider after release.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo exploded mid-flight, shortly after detaching from its carrier craft. (Kenneth Brown/Associated Press)
The NTSB investigators were expected to head to an area about 32 kilometres from the Mojave airfield where debris from SpaceShipTwo fell over a wide area of uninhabited desert Friday morning. The spacecraft broke up after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude, according to Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the accident.

Friday's accident was the second this week involving private space flight. On Tuesday, an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff in Virginia.

SpaceShipTwo is based on aerospace design maverick Burt Rutan's award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004. Three people died in a blast at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2007 while testing a rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo.

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      With files from Reuters

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