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Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 Crash

Aired October 31, 2014 - 15:30   ET


JOEL GLENN BRENNER, FORMER WASHINGTON POST REPORTER (via phone): My friends were at a place near Mojave called Jaw Bone Canyon. And there's a ranger station in Jaw Bone Canyon, and they were parked in the parking lot there because they wanted to get the very best view of the rocket as it lit off and you have a great view there in which to take pictures or video.

And so, they had their cameras, you know, trained on spaceship at the time. And they were the ones that reported that the engine basically started and then stopped. And they saw the pieces of the spaceship basically raining down on the desert and they saw debris down in the areas of Cullen (ph) Dry Lake which -- I don't want to estimate but if you pull up Google maps, you'll see it very clearly on the maps and you'll see Jaw Bone Canyon. And they also said that they were rushing to the crash site afterward and they came upon a FedEx driver who says that he had debris that basically rained down behind his truck and another driver had come down on the road that he was on. And that road basically was a road that was going to the town of, let's see, Cantil, C-A-N-T-I-L, town that that road was headed toward.

So all four of these people headed to the biggest area where the dust have sort of leapt up and because that seemed to be the most likely place where they might find the survivor and unfortunately they did not find a survivor but they did find a body at that site. And it was one of the pilots and he was still strapped in to his ejection seat, but of course, the body was not fully intact and they did not disturb him. He was beyond being rescued and they said that even in the part of the desert where they were, the debris pieces were so widespread that, you know, it was obvious to them that there was going to be quite a bit of work for the police and for NTSB and other investigators to do because, you know, it was like when Columbia rained down over Texas, I mean, we just -- it's unbelievable when something breaks up. That height and fear to track, you know, where everything is.

And so that's, you know, that's what they saw (ph) and that is, you know, their eyewitness version. The FedEx actually driver was an ex- marine and he did some tours in Iraq and he was quite disturbed obviously being caught in this of debris. And he had no idea that there was flight going on or anything else and the same with the driver and the other car. And you know, my friends, at least, you know, were able to explain to the two of them, you know, what this is all about because they didn't have any idea.

And so, it's quite disturbing and quite frightening and I mean, you know, everyone's worst nightmare I have to tell you. And you know, we have been talking a little bit, I know, today about setbacks and what this means for the future and now I have to tell you that I believe sincerely that this is the end for customers in space on Virgin Galactic at least any time soon because they don't have a vehicle anywhere near completion. So you know, I don't see them at least being able to carry anybody into space in the next ten years. There's no way. They have a second spaceship they say they've been working on but I don't think it's more than, you know, maybe more than 25, 30 percent complete at best.

So that's where things stand, at least in Virgin Galactic. There are some other companies, of course, who are trying to do it and I can't speak for them. But I can speak for Virgin Galactic and that is that they do not have a second spaceship in the wings that they can just pull out and say, OK, we'll try it again. So this really marks the end for what they can do.


BRENNER: It's tragic. It is really tragic.

BALDWIN: It is incredibly tragic. I'm stuck on the image that you describe in the desert of these people coming upon this pilot and it is horrendous all of the way around. All of the way around.

We are going to take a quick break here. Joel Glenn Brenner, thank you so much again for staying with us and helping us with our coverage of what has now really unfolded as a tragedy in the Mojave Desert in California. One pilot onboard Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 has died, another suffering major injuries after what was supposed to be a successful test flight clearly was not.

We've got new information. We have to take a quick break. More on our breaking news. Stay right here.


BALDWIN: Breaking news here. You are watching CNN. On the left side of your screen representing, really, the hopes and dreams of what is Virgin Galactic in the spaceship to this entire idea of having passengers onboard. This essentially, this spacecraft, this SpaceShipTwo that would take people if they could pay $250,000 to go up to suborbital flight to feel few more minutes that feeling of weightlessness before coming back down and gliding back down to earth.

Right side of your screen, this is Mojave Desert. This is California, as we now know, the FAA is investigating this abnormality is what the word that Virgin Galactic is using, something terribly, terribly wrong happened today during the test flight. One pilot has died and the other is suffering serious injuries.

Stephanie Elam is with me. She is in Los Angeles not too far from Mojave, California.

And what do we know, Stephanie? What's happening right now in the desert? We see and I talked to a reporter who said that there are actually three separate debris fields. STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. And even from what we're

seeing in these visuals that we have up here from our affiliates, you can see how far spread out it is out there in the high desert. So the investigation is going on. It is continuing to that. We know that the FAA is now also going to look into what's happening there as well and try to piece together what went wrong. Obviously, while that's very important, it is secondary to the fact that there has been a loss of life and serious injury of another pilot.

We're also getting that confirmation coming from the FAA as well that these two crew members were there, that they lost contact with the ground connection. They knew something was wrong there according to what we've been seeing and hearing and that's when this tragedy happened.

I'm actually getting prepare to head out to the desert so that we can see a better -- get a better idea of exactly how it looks. But you can see it is out by some train tracks. It's very remote where they are for this very reason because they are doing this test and there's nothing else out there. It is a maybe a little bit rocky, but really it's just very, very remote.

And so, we are going to go out there and see what we can find out, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. We will let you do that and we'll look for those pictures from you and your reporting throughout the next couple hours here on CNN from Mojave, California.

And again, you know, this is something that I was talking about with one of the astronauts we were talking with a moment ago about how this has just been a horrible week. You have what happened today and then you have this, this happened just three days ago, this unmanned NASA contracted rocket exploding mid air. This was Tuesday night along the eastern Virginia coast. I mean, this thing went up in flames six seconds after it took off.

The rocket was deliberately destroyed after a quote-unquote "serious anomaly." Another NASA official saying in the wake of Tuesday's crash that this is quote "a really tough business." And between that and between what we're seeing here, it could be a huge, huge setback.

Rachel Crane has been with me for our coverage as well. She's one of our correspondents. She is actually been in site. She has been to this area of Mojave Desert. She has just recently hosted a panel with Sir Richard Branson and also with the CEO of Virgin Galactic.

And I'm just curious as we talk about the risks, I mean, certainly they were aware.

RACHEL CRANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly. And I think any aerospace insider is very quick to point out that space travel is difficult. That this is a very hard industry to be in. It's a hard industry to innovate in. But they re, you know, quick to point out that they are trying, that they are at the beginning stages, this is (INAUDIBLE) industry, I mean, that's really trying to emerge. So a blow like this, a death like this, is just devastating to this

industry right now because, I mean, they were hoping to send paying passengers into space in the next couple months. Originally, this was supposed to be in 2007. Richard Branson who recently said that it would be this winter. Now on a late night talk show, he said it would be in February or March --

BALDWIN: Of next year.

CRANE: Of next year, yes. And so, he was planning to bring his whole family to space. You know, these astronauts, they would experience six minutes of weightlessness, paid $250,000. Over 700 people have signed up to go on these flights.

So, the public right now, their perception of the private sector's ability to take on the responsibility of space travel and space flight is certainly tarnished. I mean, as you said, like what's happened with Orbital Sciences and now Virgin Galactic, it has been a big blow to the aerospace industry.

BALDWIN: I think we can't also quite explain enough and you explained this so perfectly before, just for people to understand this SpaceShipTwo. So, this is something that is essentially rides on top of what they call the white knight to the mother ship.

CRANE: The mother ship. So white knight 2 takes off and at around 50,000 feet. Its space ship 2 drops and a rocket boost it into suborbital flight and then they both collide down like a glider, like an airplane, back down to the space port.

Now, where this accident happened, this is not where these flights are scheduled to take off once they are carrying paying passengers. That would be in space port America which in -- right outside (INAUDIBLE), New Mexico.

I was just there two weeks ago. And the spirit there, I mean, they are all incredibly excited for these flights to start taking off. They were under the assumptions that it was just months away. And so, the workers were working way incredibly quickly, putting finishing touches on the facility which the facility itself is absolutely incredible. It's a quarter of a billion dollar facility in the middle of the desert and they all have to just be devastated right now that this occurred.

BALDWIN: To hear Joel, the reporter we were talking to sort of -- I mean, she is obviously devastated, she knows these pilots, but also to hear her talking about how she feels like now that, you know, SpaceShipTwo is in pieces on the ground of the desert. She's saying she feels like this is the end. How do you feel with your knowledge?

CRANE: You know, I wouldn't say this is the end of Virgin Galactic. They are incredibly spirited about getting to space and this SpaceShipTwo, they -- I was at the manufacturing facility where they were creating this SpaceShipTwo. They were in the midst of creating others as well, other spaceships 2. There were to be two White Knight 2, so they were going to have two spaceships to use ready to fly. So obviously, this is incredibly devastating. But if you know the

spirit of Richard Branson, I mean, he is not one to give up and I think he's going to persevere. I think George Whitesides is going to persevere. He's the CEO of Virgin Galactic. And there, Richard Branson, I'm sure will be the first person on his flight into space. And I would imagine that at least half of those passengers will stick with it once they see the safety precautions are taken.

BALDWIN: OK. Rachel Crane, stay with me. We have to take a quick break here from our breaking news. We'll be back to it in just a moment.

But we just sat down with Richard Branson just very recently. And again, just hitting home, this notion of, yes, he was planning on taking a ride on SpaceShipTwo with his family. But, yes, he was also very, very well aware of the risks involved in this. We'll hear from him next.


BALDWIN: Breaking news here. You're watching CNN. I just want to report some news. I just got a text from actually a dear friend of mine who works for Richard Branson. And she just told me now. She's telling me that Richard Branson is now en route. He's en route to Mojave California. And Richard Branson too, was here at CNN near weeks ago sitting down with my colleague, Poppy Harlow. And he talked specifically about the risks involved in this -- what would be the first space tourism project, this trip to suborbital flight that he was hoping for at some point early 2015. Take a listen.


RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GALACTIC: Virgin Galactic has been the toughest company I've ever had to launch. Because it is rocket science and building rockets at the size that we need to build have been tougher than we actually thought. We have 200 of the best engineers and technicians building them. Now, we're beginning the final stages of test flights in-flight. By the end of this year, you know, we will have actually gone into space.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The FAA has signed off on you doing these test flights, which are in the midst of. But what about the final sin signoff?

BRANSON: It's a process we've gone through over the last two or three years.

HARLOW: Because they have never done it before. This is a first for them as well?

BRANSON: Absolutely. It's a fascinating process for everyone involved. I'm not going to take my son into space until I'm obviously sure we've got everything right. And the team won't let me either (INAUDIBLE). And we feel very confident that things are on the right track and that we should get FAA approval early next year.


BALDWIN: Confident everything is on the right track. Sadly, as we see here on the right side of the screen, pieces of space shuttle 2 of Virgin Galactic, everything not alright right now.

Again, Richard Branson en route to Mojave to the tragic scene. One pilot dead, another suffering major injuries after this horrendous, horrendous accident. I have Leroy Chiao on the phone. He is a NASA astronaut.

In fact, Leroy, I know that you penned an opinion piece for mere days ago in the wake of that unsuccessful rocket launch, unmanned rocket launch a couple of days ago and how that this -- it was a painful bump in the road for space. And now you couple of that with this tragic accident here in California. Your reaction, sir.

LEROY CHIAO, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT (via phone): Right. Obviously this is a serious setback and unfortunately it appears there's been loss of life in this accident, you know. But I want to stress that in this case, I mean, this was the development of a program with a new space craft with the new propulsion system. And unfortunately, in the history of developing high performance aircraft, the space craft, you know, the risks are higher than certainly operational vehicles. And so, mishaps like this unfortunately do occur.

Yes, and as far as the impact on commercial space, we will get through this, too. As I said in any major development program, unfortunately, there's a pretty good risk of mishaps like this.

BALDWIN: You know, you wrote in this piece, you wrote by their nature, rockets and rocket engines are unforgiving, containing complex components which must work correctly to get into space. When we talk about setbacks, you know, and again, you can hear the enthusiasm in late night TV when Richard Branson recently said, this would happen, you know, early 2015, obviously it doesn't take you back to zero. But how much does it take you back?

CHIAO: Well, it's less of a setback for the industry, but it certainly a significant setback for Virgin. I mean, the vehicle is built under contract by skills from (INAUDIBLE) under contract by Virgin and being developed and tested -- flight tested. And this was one of those flight tests. They've already done several flight tests. Unfortunately, this one has gone terribly wrong.

And, you know, so it is a big setback. And I agree with your previous guest. I don't think this is going to be ending for Virgin Galactic. It was a risk that there would be a serious accident during the test phase and unfortunately, that has come to pass.

BALDWIN: Let me ask you about these pilots. I mean, you have astronauts such as yourself, you have pilots and then you have those who are willing to risk lives to test out aircraft such as this. What kind of person does it take to be willing to do this?

CHIAO: Well, I would pretty much guarantee that the pilots on board and the pilots in the test program for this vehicle came from a military flying background, including, you know, training as a test pilot and then, you know, working or flying for the military in flight test capacity. So these pilots will be very experienced in high- performance vehicles. And, you know, that's their jobs. This is what they do.

BALDWIN: We know that one pilot has died. We know, according to a reporter who has a lot of sources on the ground, because this launch was some, you know, this takeoff was nine months in the making, just describing a pretty gruesome scene of how some people came upon this one pilot who, according to this woman, was still strapped in his seat. And at least there were parachutes, according to at least, this is according to her reporting. The other pilot was able to use the parachute and escape. And that is the pilot that is severely injured.

Leroy Chiao, NASA astronaut, thank you so much in valuable voice, weighing in on this tragedy today unfolding here in Mojave, California.

Rachel Crane has been sitting beside me. She has been watching and with me through all our coverage here of this SpaceShipTwo with Virgin Galactic. And again, you know, hearing -- this is still so early. We can never stress enough. The big question is why, what happened? We know that Virgin Galactic continues to use the word an anomaly, an in- flight anomaly, what that means, what precisely happened, we know the FAA is investigating. But we may not know for some time to come.

CRANE: Right. And at least right now, it's daybreak so they can be surveying the scene whereas, you now, just a couple of days with the Orbital Sciences explosion, it happened at night. So they had to wait several hours until they were able to survey the scene and start gathering parts.

But we also do know that Virgin Galactic recently had changed their fuel. They had change from a rubber-based fuel to a plastics-based fuel. So there is, you know, no reason to believe that had anything to do with today's accident. But that is a change that had happened within the past nine months since the last test flight.

BALDWIN: This test flight, how often have they been sending SpaceShipTwo up?

CRANE: Right. Well, this was actually the first major test for SpaceShipTwo.

BALDWIN: It was?

CRANE: Yes, it was. As I said, you know, I was there just a couple of months ago when they were actually putting it together. So I got inside SpaceShipTwo as they were configuring it. You know, I saw where the pilots would be sitting. I sat right there. There was actually no seat, but I pretended as though I was sitting.

This is a major blow to SpaceShipTwo, to Virgin Galactic and, of course, to the families of the pilots inside. So we don't know the details yet. Hopefully they'll be illuminated soon enough. BALDWIN: We'll get details on these pilots. We wish this pilot who

has suffered major injuries -- just to imagine how far -- you heard with me, the reporter, 50,000 feet up.

CRANE: Right. Because it happened -- the accident occurred right as SpaceShipTwo was releasing --

BALDWIN: Separated?

CRANE: Separating from white knight two. And that was at 50,000 feet. Now, what suppose to happen is then Spaceshiptwo is then supposed to be launched and suppose go 50 to 62 miles above earth so it reaches that suborbital flight and the passengers become astronauts per se. But obviously, it didn't reach that height. And 50,000 fell from 50,000 feet in the air.

BALDWIN: This is something we have heard a lot about. This is the flight where if you could pay that pretty penny of $250,000, hearing names. And again, he would never confirm the likes of Steven Hawkins and Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher, you know, celebrities who could pay that ticket to experience for, as you point out, mere minutes of weightlessness and just really the awe. I mean, if you can't quote get through NASA training and become an astronaut, this for us regular --


BALDWIN: -- possibly reach. So, thank you so much, Rachel Crane

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for staying with me. Stay right there with CNN. Of course, Jake Tapper will be all over a tragic, tragic, tragic day in Mojave, California.

Jake Tapper, to you.