Three people were killed and three others critically injured Thursday in an explosion at a Mojave Desert airport site used by the pioneering aerospace company that sent the first private manned rocket into space, authorities said.
The blast at a Mojave Air and Space Port facility belonging to Scaled Composites LLC released nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, into the air. Haz-Mat teams were on the scene as a precaution and fire authorities said the scene was safe. All the victims worked for Scaled, the Mojave-based builder of SpaceShipOne, the first private manned rocket to reach space.
Aerospace designer Burt Rutan, who heads Scaled but was away, rushed back to Mojave. He appeared emotional, hugging the airport manager and fire chief. His voice trailed off at times as he spoke to reporters. No information about the victims was released because families were being notified.
Rutan said the blast did not involve a rocket firing but happened during a test of the flow of nitrous oxide through an injector in the course of testing components for a new rocket motor for the upcoming SpaceShipTwo.
The nitrous oxide was at room temperature and under pressure, Rutan said.
‘We don’t know why it exploded’
Rutan gave little additional information about the test, but said it had been done safely many times during the SpaceShipOne program and had been done once before for the SpaceShipTwo program.
“We were doing a test we believe was safe. We don’t know why it exploded. We just don’t know,” he said.
SpaceShipTwo is to be used for the new space tourism business Virgin Galactic belonging to Richard Branson. The company plans to offer $200,000 rides into space for tourists.
Scaled’s offices and aircraft construction facilities were closed late Thursday. Authorities did not allow access to the blast site in a remote unpaved area about a quarter-mile beyond an airplane storage area.
Video news helicopters showed wrecked equipment and vehicles at the airport in the high desert north of Los Angeles near Edwards Air Force Base.
Rutan's firm an aviation pioneer
Scaled uses nitrous oxide as an oxidizer in its rockets, which are tested at the airport. An oxidizer provides the oxygen that rocket fuel needs to burn. Scaled’s Web site notes that “temperatures and pressures must be carefully controlled” during oxidizer transfers.
Kern County Fire spokesman Tony Diffenbaugh said two people were killed instantly in the explosion at 2:34 p.m. PDT (5:34 p.m. EDT) and four others were rushed to a local hospital. One of those died following surgery, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A call seeking comment from the airport manager was not immediately returned.
The Mojave airport is where the Rutan-designed Voyager aircraft was built. It made history in 1986 when it achieved the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling.
In 2004, Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, made the first privately financed manned spaceflight by climbing more than 62 miles high on a suborbital journey above Mojave. SpaceShipOne went on to make two more flights to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Rutan has since been developing SpaceShipTwo for Branson, who is investing at least $200 million for a fleet of Rutan’s spaceships. Earlier this year he told a trade show the new ship will be ready within a year and, after a year of flight tests, would have its first commercial launch in 2009.
Country's first certified spaceport
Rutan, who works secretively and stresses that safety will be the key to success of space tourism, has not publicly released a schedule for completion of the design, testing and first launch.
Aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. owns 40 percent of Scaled and recently agreed to acquire the rest of it. The deal is awaiting regulatory approval and should close next month.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Dan McClain said the company had no comment on the explosion.
The 3,300-acre airfield complex is an important part of Mojave, an unincorporated community of about 4,000 people, said Bill Deaver, publisher of weekly Mojave Desert News. It employs about 1,500 people, he said, and is the country’s first inland spaceport certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The airport is often crowded with parked airliners that are not in service. Its flight operations often involve unusual aircraft undergoing testing, and civilian test pilots undergo training there.
The airport has been a popular location for movie and television production. Part of “Speed” was filmed at the airport — a Boeing 707 was blown up in a scene that was supposed to be Los Angeles International Airport.