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Virgin Galactic Spacecraft Crashes

Aired October 31, 2014 - 15:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We are at the top of the hour. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world, as we have now confirmed at least one of the pilots on board this Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo has died and the other pilot is suffering major, major injuries.

These are live pictures, Mojave, California. As we have learned from Virgin Galactic, which of course is sir Richard Branson's massive enterprise in California. Huge excitement surrounding what would be, what still could be this flight 62 miles out to suborbital orbit just to the edge where one, if they can pay for that $250 ticket to get on board this spacecraft, could experience the awe that is space, the weightlessness, can see what that really is like.

And so now we are experiencing a tragedy, which of course in the wake of the rocket that exploded near six seconds after takeoff a couple days ago is certainly -- it's tough to swallow for anyone who loves space.

I have Joel Glenn Brenner on the phone. She is a former "Washington Post" reporter and author who has followed the development of this particular program, this Virgin Galactic program.

And tell me, when you look at these pictures here, pieces of presumably this SpaceShipTwo here in the desert, and we now have the news that at least one of the pilots has died, it's tough news to swallow.

JOEL GLENN BRENNER, REPORTER: Actually, yes, Brooke.

I'm quite, quite heartbroken. I knew both of these pilots very, very well. They were both engaged with the predecessor program to the Virgin Galactic program. And that was the SpaceShipOne program, which was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. And that was the program that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize back in 2004.

Many people may remember that we were just celebrating the 10th anniversary of the winning of that prize earlier this month on October 4. And people were saying, hey, it's been 10 years since that prize was won with SpaceShipOne. And look what happened. Virgin Galactic was the wonderful result of that achievement.

And look at what Virgin is about to become. And now today we have this unbelievable, unbelievable tragedy that seems to have taken the life of one of these young, young pilots. And I am absolutely devastated to learn that someone has died in this tragedy. BALDWIN: Joel, I hear the emotion in your voice. As a journalist,

you are helping us cover this, but knowing these two individuals -- and we won't name them. I don't know if their families have been identified. We're focusing so much and we talk about passion of Sir Richard Branson and I have to imagine -- and hopefully you can share I'm sure just the passion of anyone working on this project, right, wanting to be the first to take these space tourists up 62 miles out.

Tell me more about what you know about these pilots.

BRENNER: Both of them were test pilots.

And of course this is what they signed on to do, which is to be the people who take the risk for the rest of us, so that we know these vehicles are safe and are ready for commercial flight, for commercial operations. Of course, this was the first time that a Virgin Galactic spaceship had gone into a powered flight in more than nine months.

The spaceship's last powered flight was back in January of this year. And after that, there was a realization on the part of Virgin Galactic that the rocket engine that they were using really had some very difficult, insurmountable problems, and that they were going to need to rethink the way that they were approaching the flight to space.

And so they shut things down for a long time looking for a different solution. And that is why they sort of have been dormant. And people were quite excited because they thought that they had found the solution that was going to allow them to get the vehicle much higher, so that they could give customers this amazing experience that they had been promising for so long now.

I think the first time Richard Branson promised people that they would be flying into suborbital space was back in 2007. And now here we are seven years after that and we are still in test flight. And a lot of people were starting to get frustrated. I know that the people who were working on the program were feeling that frustration and were feeling the pressure to get the spaceship back up into powered flight and prove that the program was moving forward, and that they were making progress.

And this was the first attempt at putting a rocket engine back in a spaceship and getting it back under powered flight. And as we have now seen, this attempt went tragically, tragically wrong. And there are eyewitness accounts. I have spoken with people who were right there this morning waiting 6:00 a.m. West Coast time to witness the powered flight and they had their eyes right on it.


BALDWIN: So there were witnesses, there were witnesses who saw what happened over the skies of Mojave, California?

BRENNER: Oh, absolutely, because this was a big deal. This was the first attempt in nine months. And whenever you have something like this happen, a move back to powered flight, there is a lot of concern obviously for flight safety and a lot of concern. It is rocket science for a reason. This is not easy. There were a lot of people who were a little worried about this new approach that Virgin Galactic was taking with this new engine. And so there were people who were specifically out there with long-range telescopes and lenses and things with their eyes trained in the sky.

And, yes, they saw absolutely every second of what happened and what they reported specifically was that when WhiteKnightTwo, which is this launch airplane that they use to get the spaceship up to about 50,000 then feet, it drops off the spaceship, which is nothing more than a glider airplane with a rocket attached. They drop it off the mother ship, they call it, and it is a glider until it lights off that rocket.

And once it lights off that rocket, the pilots' job is to steer that spaceship into a vertical position and head it straight up so that all of the rocket power forces it up and out of the atmosphere. And in this case, they dropped it and, as is supposed to happen, the pilots inside count down three, two, one, arm and fire. And that is what happened and they fired and the rocket did light.

And it burned for approximately two seconds. And then the rocket stopped. And immediately everyone knew there was trouble, because that's not supposed to happen. And that is an indicator of what's called a hard start. And that's a very dangerous thing. And so the rocket stopped and then within one second it restarted, and that is when it exploded.

And the explosion came almost instantaneously, and suddenly pieces of the spaceship were raining out of the sky. And there was a pilot who was able apparently to eject via parachute on his way down and escape the wreckage.

And the other pilot unfortunately was unable to do so. And there were three different debris fields scattered across Mojave, huge, huge debris fields because it blew up at 50,000 feet in the air. You can imagine the debris is scattered quite a distance across the desert. We don't know exactly who survived and who died at this stage. And we also don't know what caused the engine to start and stop and start again.


BRENNER: But it's clear that if that is in fact -- the eyewitness accounts if those are correct, and my understanding is that there is plenty of camera footage of this event to show that's what happened. But if that is in fact what happened, you know, it's a hard start and it was all over. They had no chance.

BALDWIN: Joel Glenn Brenner, you are invaluable as we talk to you about what you're hearing. And certainly in the coming hours, we will begin to hear those eyewitness accounts as people -- this was as you point out nine months in the making to see this happening over Mojave, and really just the juxtaposition of what we have been looking at on the left side of your screen, the dreams, the hopes, the future of this program, this SpaceShipTwo, and again what you're looking at now, the pieces of this spaceship on the desert floor.

I have Richard Quest standing by, our aviation correspondent.

Go ahead. Do you have any questions for Joel?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Joel, the issue of the engine, which you so beautifully brought to us and put into perspective, this has been the issue that has bedeviled the spacecraft pretty much since it went into powered flight to get the thing powerful and get the thrust to get it into orbit in that short period of time.

And as you were alluding to, they have had terrible trouble. Can you hear that? Can you hear me, Joel?


BRENNER: Richard Quest is asking me...

QUEST: I think -- Joel, are you there?


BALDWIN: Joel, we have Richard Quest on TV. He's got a question for you if you can just pay attention, pretty please.

QUEST: Just make sure that Joel can hear me.

Are you with me, Joel?

BRENNER: Yes, I am.

You were asking me about the engine that has given them such a hard time. What were you wanting to know?

QUEST: Well, this is the crux of the issue, because every time I have spoken to Sir Richard or any of the people involved, the enthusiasm for the project and the viability of the project, but, Joel, it's always founded on this engine and the ability of the engine to get the craft into suborbit.

BRENNER: Well, this is a very difficult topic. There has been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm shown by the people at Virgin Galactic and absolutely by Sir Richard himself. Without question, they have been extremely enthusiastic and extremely confident in their ability to do what they set out to do.

I have been following this story very closely, just to let the people understand where I fit into this whole picture. I was invited by Paul Allen, who funded SpaceShipOne and underwrote the development of that amazing program, to come inside and document the development of SpaceShipOne.

I was a Random House author at the time. I'm a former "The Washington Post" reporter. And I had an incredible, incredible gift given to me to come inside and witness a moment in history like none other, a true Kitty Hawk moment in the development of that incredible spaceship, which is now in the hall at the Air and Space Museum. You can go and see it.

I have been working to share the story of SpaceShipOne in book form with the world. And, of course, because of all of my contacts with the folks who worked on SpaceShipOne, I kept up with everybody out in Mojave and have watched and followed the development of Virgin Galactic's program.

I have to tell you that the enthusiasm that's been shown outwardly by Virgin Galactic and by Sir Richard certainly does not match at all with the technology behind the scenes. And there is a big gap there and has been for quite some time.

And I will be documenting that.

QUEST: Right.

BRENNER: And it's a real problem.

And I will tell you this as well, that this engine that exploded today, even if they had had a successful flight, and even if they had not stolen my friend's life, OK...

QUEST: Right.

BRENNER: ... they would not have ever gotten anywhere near space with this engine, OK?

QUEST: Right.

BRENNER: So, I am here to say that they took this pilot's life, and this engine still would not have gotten customers to space.

QUEST: Right.

BRENNER: And I want people to know that now.

And I am sure that Virgin Galactic is going to be very unhappy with me for telling the truth, but it is time the truth be told, because that is the truth.

QUEST: Right.

Well, while we consider -- Brooke, we can pull all the strands of what we're hearing, what Joel there is saying is extremely important, because, as Poppy will attest, as Joel will attest, myself, any one of us who have covered this story, it's a constant pendulum between the enthusiasm and the can-do and the -- if you want to put it bluntly, the "Star Trek" nature of finally getting people into space, ordinary people...


QUEST: ... you, me, those who -- whatever, get them into space, vs. the extreme difficulties of doing so. And Joel talks about it very eloquently there. And it will obviously be up to the authorities, whether it be the NTSB or do you have another authority, because that's another issue that is here. This was a spacecraft. But it's an aircraft. There's been a constant backwardsing and forwarding amongst the regulators over how to proceed with this, how the regulation, how the certification should be done.

And that always happens, Brooke, when you have the private sector in the space sphere. And now, of course, we have got passenger flight involved as well.

BALDWIN: Of course. And that's why, especially given what happened a couple of days ago with different private entity, it's a punch in the gut, as Miles O'Brien said.

Richard Quest, thank you so much.

And, again, huge, huge thank you to Joel Glenn Brenner, who was on the phone, who has clearly been covering this particular program, Virgin Galactic, for a long, long time. And just -- it's not just about how this would have been and still could be the first official tourist spaceflight, but that it's a loss of life for at least one of these test pilots.

She put it so eloquently in talking about these are pilots who know they are risking their lives each and every time they strap in to test one of these pieces of equipment, this SpaceShipTwo. And, sadly, this happened today, a loss of one life and major injuries to another.

Quick break. We will be right back.


BALDWIN: All right, breaking news.

If you are just joining us here, we have learned that there was an anomaly in this -- this in-flight anomaly, according to Virgin Galactic, as a result, the pictures you see here on the right side of your screen. This is SpaceShipTwo, which eventually is supposed to take people on this suborbital flight, a number of passengers in, as Sir Richard Branson was hoping, perhaps in the coming, months if you could afford the $250,000 ticket to do so.

But sadly today, just this morning, there was clearly an accident and we have confirmed one of the pilots has died and the other suffering major injuries and let me read this for you. This is new. We just got this statement into CNN. This is from the FAA.

And this is what they told. Let me just quote them: "Just after 10:00 this morning Pacific time, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental spaceflight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert, shortly after the spaceship vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft. Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. The FAA is investigating." That's what we have from the FAA. We have been seeing people there on the ground amidst the scattered debris of this particular spacecraft.

I have a NASA astronaut on the phone with me. He is Michael Massimino. He's joining me here to just talk about the tragedy that's absolutely unfolded here in Mojave, California.

Michael, as you look at this and this loss of life, it's so incredibly sad.

MASSIMINO: Yes. This is pretty bad.

And I really don't know what to say, Brooke. It reminds me of when we had our accident in 2003 when we lost Columbia and seven of our friends were killed. And it's just a really bad day. And it's bad for everyone -- it's bad for everyone involved and particularly for the families. It's a tragedy in a lot of different directions for a lot of people

It's a nightmare. When we lost Columbia, it was the worst day of my life and I'm just wondering who we lost today. It's just one of -- it's a bad day.

BALDWIN: It's a bad day, as one of these test pilots has died and another suffering major injuries, and Sir Richard Branson, who was at the helm of this entire project, very well aware of the risks involved trying to get this first flight, this first space tourism flight off the ground.

CNN talked to him just recently. This was his response when asked about the risks.


RICHARD BRANSON, CHAIRMAN & CEO, VIRGIN GROUP: I think it's the start of a new space race. It's not been easy. It's taken us five years more than we thought it would take. But finally they pulled it off.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Do you ever fear that maybe you're putting too much at risk with this?

BRANSON: People risked a lot to get space off the ground in the first place, but unless you risk something, you know, the world, you know, stays still.


BALDWIN: That was Poppy Harlow when she visited Mojave Desert within the past year talking to Richard Branson about this.

Rachel Crane sitting next to me, she has been there. She's actually been inside of SpaceShipTwo.

You have explained how SpaceShipTwo was carried out via this vehicle called WhiteKnightTwo. WhiteKnight, according to Virgin Galactic, is A-OK. But, clearly, as we see the pieces of this SpaceShipTwo on the ground in the desert, it's clearly not.

And we were making a point to me in commercial break that I think people may not realize. Not only was this supposed to be the first space tourism flight. Sir Richard Branson was hoping for more.


Richard Branson was hoping this would actually lead to point-to-point travel, so essentially being able to get from New York to Australia in an hour. This was really -- Virgin Galactic was just the beginning of this technology of these suborbital flights. It's a huge blow to the entire travel industry, in that they were trying to move things faster, further, and of course they're just devastated right now. It's a huge blow to the entire industry.

BALDWIN: Richard Quest is also with me, our aviation correspondent. he and I, we were talking to a woman by the name of Joel Glenn Brenner, who clearly as a journalist who has covered this program it sounds like really since the inception was pretty broken up, because she knows -- she qualified these pilots as her friends and that these are test pilots. They knew what they were walking into each and every time they strapped into the spaceship.

I was asking you if we knew if they had parachutes as they were up there. This is again just according to her, we're working to confirm all of this, but that there are multiple debris fields and that one of these pilots was able to eject and was to escape via the parachute, but the other sadly did not, Richard.

QUEST: Sorry. Forgive me, Brooke. Sorry. Forgive me, Brooke. I was listening to a question. I wasn't sure if that was referring to me or to Rachel.

Yes. This is -- I was very surprised frankly with what Joel was just saying then. But I can understand the depth of what she's talking about.

Now, as for the debris field that you refer to, we do know a lot about how debris fields expand the higher the aircraft and this particular craft will have been released at about 50,000 feet from WhiteKnightTwo, which, if you will, for want of a better phrase, is the mother ship.

That's the craft that carries SpaceShipTwo up as high as it can go, releases the spaceship, or the spaceship, if you like, to differentiate. The spaceship then ignites its own rocket, but that rocket has one purpose and one purpose only. It's to give the craft the thrust and lift to defeat the Earth's gravity to get it into suborbit.

And that's all it does. Thereafter, SpaceShipTwo or any of these crafts acts similar to how the space shuttle behaved. They are, for want of a better word, flying gliders, bricks. They do what they have to do. You have three, four, six minutes of weightlessness and then you prepare to come back. And then the idea was the passengers would put on -- would go back into their seats, re-harness up, and the reentry process would take place and the plane would -- the spaceship would become a plane and it would then glide down. Now, that was the theory.

But because, as what Joel was saying from what her sources tell her, this may well have broken up at 50,000 feet. This is the exact opposite of a crash landing. Then you would expect a very wide debris field. The FAA, the NTSB, NASA, all the investigating authorities will now be there. Probably, the NTSB takes primacy and they will be examining every single aspect to find out what happened.

Joel Glenn Brenner is with us still on the phone, formerly of "The Washington Post." She's been incredibly eloquent in explaining her friends, the pilots, what her sources are telling her, explaining this entire program.

And, Joel, so my question to you here is also realizing just for our viewers as we're all learning about this together, this was something you mentioned this has been nine months in the making. There were people who were there, huge anticipation of this spaceship, the spacecraft for having this successful test flight, and clearly, sadly, that didn't happen.

What are you hearing from people who were on the ground there in Mojave? How did they describe what they saw?

BRENNER: Well, I can tell you exactly what they -- because I got the phone calls immediately at the explosion, and basically got an eyewitness account as it was taking place.