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Virgin Galactic CEO Sees New Spacecraft Ready Next Year

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MOJAVE, California — Virgin Galactic could have a new spacecraft ready to fly by next year, the chief executive of Richard Branson's space tourism company said in an interview published on Sunday, reacting to concerns about the safety of technology used in the Virgin craft that crashed last week.

George Whitesides, the head of the company dedicated to Branson's vision of bringing everyday passengers into space, told the Financial Times the new fuel system used in Virgin's SpaceShipTwo during Friday's test flight in the Mojave Desert was rigorously tested. One pilot was killed and the other badly injured in the crash.

Whitesides said a second craft being built for Virgin was about 65 percent complete, sounding a note of optimism about the program even as federal investigators were just beginning what is likely to be a year-long investigation into accident. "The second spaceship is getting close to readiness," he said, adding that it could be ready to fly by next year once the probe by the National Transportation Safety Board reached its conclusions.

His remarks followed a somber assessment of the future of Virgin Galactic by founder Branson, who hoped to be among the first passengers on its maiden voyage that had been expected early next year. "We really thought by March of next year, we'd be there," the billionaire entrepreneur told the BBC after arriving in Mojave on Saturday. "Something went wrong. We need to find out what went wrong and fix it."

Friday's crash was the second disaster in less than a week suffered by a private space company, dealing a blow to the fledgling commercial space industry that has been taking on work traditionally done by governments. On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

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— Reuters

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