Branson on Virgin Galactic crash: 'Space flight is hard -- but worth it'

As the National Transportation Safety Board takes the lead role in investigating the crash of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson says the space-tourism venture would still "love to finish what we started."

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Richard Branson, founder of the space tourism project Virgin Galactic, says Virgin will learn from the fatal crash of its SpaceShipTwo craft and move foreward. NBC/Virgin.com

Virgin founder Richard Branson vowed to continue pursuing the idea of commercial spaceflight despite the crash of SpaceShipTwo, the suborbital space plane that his Virgin Galactic business is testing for space tourism.

SpaceShipTwo went down in California's Mojave Desert during a test flight on Friday. One pilot was killed and the second was rushed to a hospital with major injuries.

The incident is a blow to Branson's dreams of building a business that would allow regular -- albeit wealthy -- people to fly into space, and its the latest mishap involving commercial rockets.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday that it would take the lead role in the investigation, and Branson said he would work with the authorities. "We're determined to find out what went wrong," he said during a press conference Saturday. "We'll learn from this, and move forward together."

Branson doesn't believe the setback will halt the eventual emergence of commercial spaceflight. "Space flight is hard -- but worth it," he said in a blog post earlier today. While at the conference, he said he owed it to the pilots, who worked for Virgin Galactic partner Scaled Composites, to find out what happened, determine if the problem can be fixed, and move on with the project.

He noted that the early days of aviation were fraught with incidents, and that commercial flight now is safe. He sees spaceflight evolving the same way.

"In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technology, we are standing on the shoulders of giants," he said at the conference. "Yesterday, we fell short."

Branson said safety remained Virgin Galactic's No. 1 priority and that this is why his company is testing things now, so that a mishap like this never happens on a commercial flight.

According to a tweet from the Associated Press yesterday, a witness said SpaceShipTwo exploded in midair after its rockets ignited. That ignition is a key stage of the craft's self-flight process, where it detaches from the larger WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that ferries it to cruise altitude. Virgin said WhiteKnightTwo landed safely.

Virgin Galactic is the space tourism company with the goal of operating a fleet of space planes, like SpaceShipTwo, that will carry passengers into suborbital space for as much a $250,000 a person.

SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry two pilots and six passengers, had completed 54 test flights in the last five years, the latest being a controlled "glide flight" last August to test stability during descent. The last powered flight of SpaceShipTwo occurred in January of this year, as Virgin Galactic was changing the aircraft's rubber-based solid fuel that caused engine instabilities to a new, better-performing thermoplastic-based solid fuel developed by Scaled Composites. Yesterday's failed flight was the first in which SpaceShipTwo used the new fuel while in the air.

Branson had said this year that he hopes to be on the first commercial flight either later this year or sometime in early 2015. More than 700 people have booked a flight with Virgin Galactic, including high-profile names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking. It's unclear how the SpaceShipTwo crash will affect the company's commercial operations. Branson said he doesn't expect many customers to seek a refund, noting that many have expressed sentiments of support following the incident.

The crash of SpaceShipTwo followed the explosion of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket, which was carrying an unmanned spacecraft with supplies bound for the International Space Station. There were no injuries reported in that incident, which happened Tuesday.

Here, in full, is the speech Branson made Saturday:

This is a very tough time for all of us at Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Scaled Composites, and our thoughts remain with the families of the brave Scaled pilots, and all those affected by this tragedy.

We are determined to find out what went wrong and are working with the authorities to get that information. It is too early for me to add any details of the investigation at this stage.

We have always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project. We have been undertaking a comprehensive testing program for many years and safety has always been our number one priority. This is the biggest test program ever carried out in commercial aviation history, precisely to ensure this never happens to the public.

The bravery of test pilots generally cannot be overstated. Nobody underestimates the risks involved in space travel. Commander Chris Hadfield is amongst those who has sent moving notes of support, in which he highlighted the nature of space projects. He wrote: "As a former test pilot, crashes and even deaths were frequent. It is a known part of the business. Little solace, but reality. Pushing the bounds of knowledge and possibility comes with unavoidable risk."

In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short. We will now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward together as a company.

We have been touched by the overwhelming support coming from not just the space community but the world at large. If I could hug every single person who has sent messages of love, support and understanding over the past day, I would. The space community sticks together, and there have been touching messages of solidarity from NASA, X Prize, our customers, the media, the Virgin family and many, many thousand members of the public inspired by the vision of commercial space travel.

We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly -- to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy. We are going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance and then move forwards together.

I truly believe that humanity's greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain. This team is a group of the bravest, brightest, most determined and most resilient people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. We are determined to honor the bravery of the pilots and teams here by learning from this tragedy. Only then can we move forward, united behind a collective desire to push the boundaries of human endeavor.

Update, 4:15 p.m. PT: Scaled Composites released information on SpaceShipTwo's pilots late today. Here's the statement:

"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."

CNET's Nick Statt contributed to this report.

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