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Spaceship builder faces fines for fatal blast

The company that flew the first privately funded manned rocket into space has been cited in connection with an explosion last summer that killed three workers, the state of California said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The company that flew the first privately funded manned rocket into space has been cited in connection with an explosion last year that killed three workers, California safety officials said Friday.

Scaled Composites LLC failed to properly train workers about the dangers of nitrous oxide that was used during a test in July, state occupational safety inspectors said in an 11-page report.

In addition to those killed, three other workers were seriously injured in the blast at a remote testing facility in the Mojave Desert, which was part of the development of a new rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo, a passenger vehicle that Mojave-based Scaled is building for Virgin Galactic.

The state levied three citations against Scaled, including two that were considered "serious," and fined the spaceship builder $25,870. Scaled has 15 days to pay or appeal the penalties.

Scaled said it has cooperated with the state and has since made changes to its workforce training and procedures.

"Scaled Composites regrets that this accident occurred and we have expressed our condolences to the victims and their families," said Scaled Executive Vice President Doug Shane.

The accident dealt a blow to Scaled, which was bought by Northrop Grumman last year.

Until the blast, Scaled had not lost any workers on the job since its founding in 1982 by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan. In 2004, Rutan's SpaceShipOne achieved a spaceflight milestone by climbing more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) high on a suborbital journey above Mojave. It went on to make two more flights to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The state's report comes a week before a joint press conference in New York by Rutan and Virgin Galactic officials to unveil scale models of SpaceShipTwo and the aircraft that will launch it into space. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he plans to start test flights this summer with the hopes of flying paying passengers afterward.

The state is in the process of finalizing its summary of the accident, but noted that the blast occurred when nitrous oxide exploded during a cold-flow test, said Kate McGuire, spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, known as Cal/OSHA.

Scaled uses nitrous oxide as an oxidizer in its rockets, which are tested at the Mojave Air and Space Port. An oxidizer provides the oxygen that rocket fuel needs to burn.

Rutan said at the time of the accident the test had been carried out safely many times during the SpaceShipOne program and once before for the SpaceShipTwo program.