Virgin 'ignored' space safety warnings: expert

[LOS ANGELES] Virgin Galactic "ignored" repeated warnings in the years leading up to the deadly crash of its spacecraft in California, a rocket science safety expert said on Sunday, as investigators hunted for clues to the accident.

Carolynne Campbell, a rocket propulsion expert with the Netherlands-based International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, said she could not speculate on the cause of Friday's crash without "all the data." However, she said multiple warnings about the spacecraft's motor and the fuel used to power it had been issued to Virgin since 2007, when three engineers died testing a rocket on the ground.

"Based on the work we've done, including me writing a paper on the handling of nitrous oxide, we were concerned about what was going on at Virgin Galactic," she told AFP.

"I sent copies of the paper to various people at Virgin Galactic in 2009, and they were ignored." Ms Campbell said she outlined concerns to Virgin Galactic in a subsequent telephone conversation, but her warning again went unheeded.

"I warned them... that the rocket motor was potentially dangerous," she said.

Ms Campbell's warnings related to nitrous oxide, reportedly used as a fuel component in the doomed craft along with a new substance derived from nylon plastic grains.

A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been deployed to the Mojave Desert to probe Friday's crash, which left pilot Michael Alsbury dead and and co-pilot Pete Siebold seriously injured.

British tycoon Richard Branson said that safety had always been Virgin's paramount concern.

"Safety has always been our number one priority," Mr Branson said, adding that the company would not "push on blindly" with its ambitious space programme until the causes of the accident had been determined.

Mr Branson, however, took aim at early speculation of the causes of the crash, which had focused on the new rocket fuel.

"To be honest, I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they're saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments," he told reporters in Mojave on Saturday.

Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides also questioned the safety claims, telling the Financial Times in an interview published Sunday that differences of opinion were common in the world of space flight development.

"In the space community, you will be able to find people who have favorite technologies of different types. One group will say their type of technology is better than another," the paper quoted him as saying.

"We pay a lot of attention to the several hundred engineers that we have on staff, and other expert consultants we've talked with about our technologies." Witnesses to Friday's crash say there was no obvious sign of an explosion before Virgin's suborbital SpaceShipTwo broke apart and hurtled to earth shortly after it had detached from a mothership at an altitude of around 45,000 feet.

The crash was the second disaster to rock the private space industry in less than a week, after an Antares rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded after takeoff in Virginia in Tuesday.

Experts say the accident will delay the advent of commercial space tourism by several years.

Virgin Galactic had hoped to start ferrying wealthy customers to the edge of space next year, charging US$250,000 per person for a ticket on the company's six-seater vehicle.

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said on-site investigations would last up to a week but the full probe piecing together facts and analysis "will be probably 12 months or so." Wreckage from the crash was strewn over an 8km long, Hart said.

Investigators hoped to yield clues to the causes of the crash from the reams of telemetry data and video footage expected to be available, Mr Hart said.

An NTSB briefing in Mojave was scheduled for later Sunday at 8.00pm (0400 GMT Monday).


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