Friday, July 27, 2007

N2O Explosion Kills Three

Private sector spacefaring appears just as dangerous as government spacefaring:
Authorities today identified three workers who were killed in an explosion on the edge of Kern County's Mojave airport during the test of a propellant system for a pioneering private spaceship.

The dead, all employees of Scaled Composites, were Eric Dean Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg; Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave; and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi.

...Three others also were badly injured in Thursday's blast at a private test site run by Scaled Composites, which was founded by high-profile aviation entrepreneur Burt Rutan.

In June 2004, the firm became the first business to launch a reusable manned rocket into space, a craft known as SpaceShip One.

Thursday's explosion — which sounded like a 500-pound bomb to a mechanic working several hundred yards away — is believed to have been caused by an undetermined operating flaw that ignited a tank of nitrous oxide.

Authorities said the blast occurred about 2:30 p.m. at a remote site on the northeastern fringe of Mojave airport, a small, county-run commercial facility about 95 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

Rutan, looking tired and disheveled, appeared at a 20-minute evening news conference at the desert airport. He told reporters that the blast occurred as the company was testing the propellent flow system for SpaceShip Two, the intended successor to the pioneering SpaceShip One and a project whose details had been closely guarded by Scaled Composites.

"We felt it was completely safe. We had done a lot of these [tests] with SpaceShip One," said Rutan, who added that "we just don't know" why the explosion occurred.

Rutan said the suspected culprit, nitrous oxide, normally is "not considered a hazardous material." Commonly called laughing gas, it is found in dental offices and is used by hot-rodders to boost the horsepower on their vehicles' engines.

According to Rutan, company employees were examining the rate at which the propellant flows through an opening. He emphasized that the test, conducted at room temperatures, did not involve igniting the rocket motor or sparking any fire.

...Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic, and Paul Allen, a co founder of Microsoft, were backing the SpaceShip Two project. The craft, about three times larger than SpaceShip One, is to be powered by much more powerful rocket engines and is supposed to carry six passengers and two pilots.

...Scaled Composites' engineers are considered experts in designing unmanned airplanes and aircraft made of lightweight composite materials. The company also works on secret projects for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's advanced research arm.

..."This whole program for Richard Branson's company is a program that's clumsy for us, because it's announced but not unveiled," Rutan said. "So we have for a year and a half here been not answering any questions at all about the program," he said, becoming visibly agitated as he spoke to reporters.

Rutan said he formed Scaled Composites 25 years ago. This was the first time anyone has been injured in a company test, he said. Thursday's tragedy at the Mojave airport — formally known as the Mojave Air and Space Port — was the second explosion at the site in recent weeks. A June 3 blast, which caused no serious injuries, was sparked in an explosives-storage facility.

In recent years, the airport, while remote, has been a hotbed of aviation activity and has been pushing hard to be the commercial spaceport for privately funded rocket projects.

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